Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Perception & Reality

I’m going to suggest to you that our perceptions by and large determine our reality. Each of the five senses recieve information about their sense objects. Our mind constructs a coherent view of reality based on the information it receives. We have, in the course of human history, created instruments which extend the reach of our senses, but this has not fundamentally altered our idea of what is real. As our understanding is refined by the most recent experimental verifications of the nature of reality suggested by quantum mechanics, that very idea of what is real may need to be reinterpreted. More on that later.

19th century American philosopher and psychologist William James said that “for the moment, what we attend to is reality.” Where we place our attention determines the information we receive. If we attend to the visual field, we will receive information about visual objects. And so on for each of the other senses: hearing, touch, smell, and taste. This directed attention determines the reality we perceive.

We assume that all humans with their sense functions intact experience the world in the same way. We share a view of the world that is consistent. Water is wet. The sky is blue. Objects fall to the ground. Jet engines are loud. Strawberries are sweet, and kisses are sweeter than wine!

But what if it isn’t always so? Or if two people comparing their experiences can’t agree on what their senses are telling them – and they are both right. I can give you a few examples of this.

Allow me to make an imperfect analogy with the world of computers and software. We are predominantly visually-oriented information processors. When that sense is deficient or suddenly lost, it has a large impact on our ability to function in the world. However, even when working optimally, we find that there is not unanimous agreement on what is “out there.”

A couple of years ago, an image was circulating on the internet that caused people to wonder what was wrong with them or their friends. Different people saw the image of a dress as either blue and black or white and gold, and there was no possibility of agreement with the other if you saw it one way.

It turned out that the way our visual sense processes information and the way our mind makes sense of it is dependent on a number of factors. How we see (i.e., assign) color depends to a great extent on how we interpret light, often with unconscious assumptions about the lighting conditions we perceive the image to be seen within.

David Williams, Allyn Professor of Medical Optics, one of the world’s leading experts on human vision and director of the Center for Visual Science in Rochester, New York tells us, "The brain always faces the problem of figuring out how much of the light arriving at the eye from an object is due to how brightly illuminated the object is and how much is due to how highly reflective the object is. We are usually extremely good at making this judgment, a perceptual skill known as lightness constancy."

But optical illusions mess with our ability to decide that what we are seeing is “real.” Pilots face this problem when flying on a moonless night or in the clouds at midday. There is simply no horizon with which to orient the aircraft. Another illusion is a particularly wide or narrow runway making it seem as if the pilot is either too low or too high. How the pilot sorts out the actual reality can be a matter of life and death for those inside the aircraft.

Aside from lighting conditions, we often misinterpret common objects as threats and vice versa. Is what we’re seeing a snake or a rope? When my wife and I lived in Tucson, Arizona, I remember a day I was cleaning up the yard. As I went to pick up what I thought was a fallen tree branch, it suddenly started rattling its tail! Yes, this tree branch was a rattlesnake. Fortunately, it was a rather warm day and the snake was a bit sluggish, or I might not be telling this story. I was able to call animal control which sent a team to take the snake to an unpopulated area and send it on its way.

It’s not only our eyes that deceive us. We have another internet sensation, which some are calling “the dress file of 2018.” Some people hear “Yanny” while others hear “Laurel” and it is unlikely that someone can choose which name they will hear without altering the sound spectrum being played. It turns out that some people are more attuned to hearing high frequencies. These people hear “Yanny.” Others who are more attuned to hearing low frequencies hear “Laurel.” Now, keep in mind that this is the same audio file that both are hearing. How each person hears, and also what they expect to hear, plays a large part in how their mind makes sense of the sound the ear conveys. It is a typical “listening vs hearing” problem. Hearing is a function of the sense organ, listening is a function of the mind.

How about our nose? Anyone who has taken Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) training is aware of the sense triggers that first responders may experience following a traumatic event such as a rescue in which there have been horrific injuries, even fatal ones. These triggers can precipitate a full-blown experience of PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder involving any combination of physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral symptoms.

To elaborate, here is a section from a Civil Air Patrol brochure that Dr. Sam Bernard and the CAP CISM team crafted: Everyone will respond to trauma or a critical incident in his or her own way. Some reactions to critical incidents are perfectly normal, but not everyone experiences the incident in the same way. Some reactions may indicate problems coping with the incident. Variables that affect all of us include:

Our support or lack of support.
The extent of the trauma.
Our prior exposure to trauma.
How we psychologically processed prior traumas.
How much the current incident reminded us of some past personal issue.

These variables coupled with the current event and our current life stressors have a bearing on
our reactions.”

One would think that a smell is a smell is a smell. A rose by any other name…

But a smell can recall a vivid memory, and our mind doesn’t discriminate between beautiful memories and horrific ones when presented with this trigger. The smell of strong cheese can be enough for some people to provoke a violent physical response, throwing them mentally back into the moment of the original trauma. Perhaps you know someone who has experienced this. That memory is our reality in that moment.

There are also instances involving touch, and the sensation of heat or cold; one’s expectation of heat can cause a blister when ice is applied to the skin. Mind over matter?

When we expect a pleasant or unpleasant taste, when does it become real? How much of our perception of taste is actually smell? Why doesn’t food and drink taste the same when we have a cold? My wife’s sense of smell has been impaired from chronic sinus infections over many years. She asks me to let her know what she is eating or drinking so she can enjoy what it should taste like. The memory of taste is what determines her reality of enjoying the meal.

I mentioned quantum mechanics earlier, the branch of physics dealing with the unimaginably small world of subatomic particles. Scientific American, the magazine loved by science geeks the world over, posted this on their blog page on 5/29/2018.

For almost a century, physicists have wondered whether the most counterintuitive predictions of quantum mechanics (QM) could actually be true. Only in recent years has the technology necessary for answering this question become accessible, enabling a string of experimental results—including startling ones reported in 2007 and 2010, and culminating now with a remarkable test reported in May—that show that key predictions of QM are indeed correct. Taken together, these experiments indicate that the everyday world we perceive does not exist until observed, which in turn suggests—as we shall argue in this essay—a primary role for mind in nature. It is thus high time the scientific community at large—not only those involved in foundations of QM—faced up to the counterintuitive implications of QM’s most controversial predictions.”

With all of the ways our senses can deceive us, perhaps it's best if we consider “reality” as a fluid concept, and one best handled lightly. It is fine to think of objects as solid and our personal identity as real for ordinary day-to-day interactions, but if we choose to look closer and deeply investigate this reality as the scientists who developed quantum mechanics have done, it appears as anything but solid, and this self can be seen to be as much an abstraction of an idea built of selective memories as it is a solid, definable “me.”

Given that we construct reality out of the information received by our senses, something that always happens a bit after the information is recieved, we need to understand that, although we share the same environment we do not always perceive things the same way. Far from being a source of contention and argument, this knowledge should encourage us to extend the benefit of the doubt to someone who disagrees with us on the content of the sense information we both experience. They are, after all, no less human than we.


With thanks to the following writers for reporting these stories:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A separate self?

To join in a collaborative effort can be a sublime experience! It is capable of giving rise to feelings of satisfaction, exhilaration, sweetness, joy, and pride. (The good kind.) What makes it sublime is that we know, even as the experience progresses, that it is possible only because of the involvement of the other individuals. We are involved in creating something significant which we could not do alone. While this experience is unfolding, our ordinary sense of a separate self is eclipsed by the perception of interdependence.

Perhaps, ultimately, there is only "we."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why can't we all just get along?

Is there anything more morally complicated than armed conflict? Both sides believe in their cause. Both mourn the sacrifices their young men and women make in their effort to defeat the other side. Both may even believe that "God is on their side" and will help vanquish the other.

The people I've met who devote their lives to military service are motivated by noble principles. The live their lives in the service of noble ideals -- honor, duty, country. Those in command are keenly aware of their responsibility to those who serve under them. Everyone works to achieve something they can only accomplish together. In the case of the armed forces, it is putting into effect the foreign policy goals of the country they serve. Whether the policy is misguided or not they will, acting honorably, still put it into effect.

It is a horrible thing to be on the receiving end of military power and, as individuals, we wouldn't wish that on anyone. But as citizens of a country engaging in the use of military force we are powerless to prevent or promote that use of force except in the indirect way of the ballot box. Once events are set in motion by our representatives, they seem to take on a life of their own. Heaven help those who get in the way.

It perhaps seems simplistic to suggest that aggression will only stop when we disarm our reactions, defuse our own anger, and create a society that values tolerance more than its own righteousness. But it has been done before. India is an independent nation because of its people's nonviolent non-cooperation with its British rulers. Eventually the British did just leave. Mahatma Ghandi made that happen.

On a smaller scale, religious communities model the ideal of cooperation for the benefit of all in a very straightforward way. As one Buddhist monastic community in eastern Washington state has said, "All of us — Friends of Sravasti Abbey, benefactors, residents, and guests – are creating a network of spiritual community that is dedicated to creating peace in a chaotic world. We do this by helping each other to transform our minds into the very peace we seek."

All of us pursue that which we think will bring us happiness and avoid that which we think will bring us suffering. We just need to get better at it. Ultimately, our own thoughts and motivations determine whether we will be happy or not. We can transform our thought at a time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?

I've asked myself this question a lot lately.  Having missed cashing in on the dot-com bubble and also missed cashing out before the precipitous collapse of 2008, what was I thinking?  Over the years of managing our personal investments with a goal of financial security and eventual retirement -- while it was relatively easy to maintain awareness of my motivations, plan trade entries and exits scientifically, and manage money carefully -- it seems that in the grand scheme of things, I blew it.  In my case, I discovered that getting into something (with due consideration) was always easier than getting out.  This particular flaw caused me to delay acting decisively ("Get out NOW!) when the bottom dropped out.  "Live and learn" doesn't seem very comforting at the moment.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Framing the question...

What's out there? It depends on what we're looking for, or looking through. The set of assumptions we bring to a problem, a scene, or a relationship will influence how we interpret what we are seeing or how we make sense of conflicting information. Those assumptions act much like a frame, defining a particular view. They also limit the view if we aren't aware of them.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How big is our world?

I wondered early on if other people saw the world as I did, and if so, was their experience the same? I had a feeling that each of us carried around an internal construction of "the world" based on our own point of view in a theatrical sense, i.e., we were the main character in our play and all the people and events in it were filtered through our perceptions and our interpretations of our perceptions. That was it...for each of us...individually. So how could our experience be the same?

But even if our experience is unique to our point of view, it is clear that we can and do learn from each other. I find the thought that our world is as big as our own perception of it a hopeful one. It seems that we can expand our capacities to the extent we are willing to explore their limits. The examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and the Dalai Lama give me an indication of how much we can grow in our capacity to help others, and develop inner qualities of generosity, compassion, patience, and tolerance.