Perception and “True” Reality

Here I am going to describe perception and the importance that it has on any given person’s experience of reality. I’m also going to explain the reasons that reality, itself, is very subjective. It is important, in any discussion, to define or at least discuss terms, so let’s start there. Reality is an illusive term that is supposed to refer to a state that is real, or to that which is true. Obviously, this only brings up more illusive terms that require more discussion, explanation, and exploration to define. The problem, when discussing reality as it pertains to human experience is that there are at least two basic kinds–that which is “real” in the material world and that which is “real” in the emotional world of any given person. Sometimes these two realities collide and are experienced simultaneously, but rarely. And while it could be argued that the reality of the material world is “more” real (as it can be substantiated objectively by any observer) often the more salient subjective reality experienced differently by each individual person is the “real” that is actually coded into memory and reacted to. Almost always, actually, it is the perceived “real” that is truly experienced, that is reacted to in the material world of the brain chemistry of the perceiver. It is what we see as “real” that causes actual neural expressions of joy or trauma, so ultimately, it is what we experience as real that really is real whether it’s real in the material world or not. Confusing?

As is my default mode of explanation, let’s look at an example. To better illustrate emotional perception, let’s take a look at visual perception. (If someone reading this post is visually impaired, you can extrapolate this example to pertain to any of the senses you are using to read this). When we look at the material world, we are not actually seeing it. What we are actually seeing are light waves reflecting off of objects, light waves of various lengths representing different colors and material qualities. The light waves are then transported through our eyes to our brains through a process called transduction. The information is then (very quickly) coded by our brains as being this or that object. Luckily, this process takes place very quickly and automatically so that we are able to take for granted that what our brains are telling us is true. If for instance we see two people standing next to each other, one only as tall as the other’s knee, we use cues (in this case bi-focus) to determine that they are not actually men of different size, but that one is simply standing much closer to us than the other. This is visual perception, the fact that we ultimately “see” with our brains, our eyes just taking in light waves. Another and more important example would be the phenomenon whereby we see something out of the corner of our eye and swear that is is a person, for example, only to realize after a second glance that it is actually a stop sign. Initially, we will actually “see” a person there until we look more carefully and give our brains a better chance to make out the stop sign. We actually “see” the mistaken object because our brain has coded (incorrectly) that the stop sign is a person. Furthermore, the object that our brains tell us is there before we have a second look is not picked randomly, it depends on the history of the perceiver. A mistaken object seen quickly in the periphery of a person living in the wilds of Alaska would be different than that, say, of a person who lives in the middle of New York City. That mistaken object might be a bear or a Cadillac in each case, respectively, depending on the subjective history of the perceiver. Furthermore (and importantly, as we will see later) were the New Yorker to visit Alaska, and should he bring with him a fear of bears, he would be much more prone to “seeing” bears incorrectly from his peripherals. The fear itself would ready or prime his brain to “see” bears. Let’s return now to the discussion of emotional perception, bringing with us this understanding of the brain’s propensity to make non-random perceptual mistakes.

If information taken in through the eyes and then “seen” by the brain is in some cases subjective and not always reflective of the material world, it is only much more so the fact with emotional information. There is far more room for interpretation in the emotional world, especially the part of the emotional world that deals with interpersonal navigation. In visual perception there is only so much room for interpretation (so long as there is sufficient light), but in emotional interpretation there is much more room to assign personal meaning to what is perceived. In much the same way that we “see” more with our brains than with our eyes, we “perceive”, almost completely, with our brains. Just as the man who fears bears may keep thinking he sees them everywhere during a visit to Alaska, a person with a history of abandonment may perceive abandonment within the relationships he experiences whether it is there or not. A neutral cancellation in plans by one can easily be “seen” thus “experienced” as abandonment in the world of another who is primed to feel abandoned. Automatically, people look out at the world ready to notice and interpret reality very subjectively, but then code and react to the information as if it were fact in their lives. The person I refer to above, primed to notice abandonment, will actually experience abandonment–literally code it into the memory circuits of their brain–when it is perceived. It matters not what is actually happening in the real world of the other. And because our erroneous interpretations are not random, but tailored to the exact specifications forged of our past experiences, there is a tendency to reinforce whatever dominant themes we already carry around inside us. Each time a person plays out and experiences these non-random patterns, he grows stronger in his conviction that the world is just the way he “knows” it to be. In turn, this will only deepen the ruts carved into the pathways of his implicit memory, ensuring that he will non-randomly “see” the same patterns again and again.

It is important, when making psychological changes, to attempt to break free of the ruts in memory that I am describing. Almost always (and the topic of another post), people who’s non-random perception tendencies “fit” together, find each other. Usually, the degree to which a person’s subjective reality differs from actual reality will end up being similar to that difference in those they attract and are attracted to–another non-random process. But when a person can learn to truly see the nature of their personal perceptual idiosyncrasies, they can learn to move beyond them and then begin to create a different reality through a different neural and experiential reality, but it takes time and effort. There is no more difficult a task than to address and challenge the lenses through which one sees and interprets the world, but also no task more worth undertaking. To become cognizant of and change one’s perceptual tendencies changes one’s world. As Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon point out in their book,A General Theory of Love, “It’s a rare person who glimpses the expanse of his own subjectivity, who knows that anything before his mind’s eye is the Hindu’s’ Maya–an elaborate dream of the world, worthy of a god, but reverie just the same.”