Our Perceptions of the World

In a diary entry dated 04/08/1931 in Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously published book The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes, “For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.” There are many things in this world that make assumptions about, and we never truly know if our assumptions are correct. But what information we take in, and how we use that information and interpret it, shapes the world we construct and the assumptions we attach to the world.

 

I really like this quote, especially at this time, because I have been thinking about consciousness after having listened to a few podcast episodes from Rob Reid’s show, After On. Reid has had a few guests on his show who have talked about consciousness and the challenges in fully understanding what is happening in our brains. We don’t know exactly where consciousness comes from and whether it is within the brain or something that sits on top of the brain. We don’t know what it is that allows our brain matter and nervous system to become conscious and we don’t know where consciousness stops, whether it ends with dogs and ferrets or if it continues all the way down to bees, ants, or plants.

 

Beyond questions of consciousness, we have questions about the information that our body is able to take in and process. We also have questions about what information we actually become aware of with all the the information that is available for us to perceive. We know that we can’t smell as well as a dog, we can’t hear the same frequencies as a bat, and we can’t sense the earth’s magnetic field the way a bird does. Bees can see a greater range of the light spectrum than we can see, but we at least have eyes which can see much better than starfish which can only pick up on whether it is light above them or not. For each animal, including humans, the range of possible senses and information that can be taken in is called the umwelt. A German word to describe the experiences of the world for that animal.

 

All this brings me back to Pessoa’s quote. From a pure physics level, it is easy to see that our thinking and understanding of the world is limited by the physics of the universe and by the information we can take in form our surroundings. The world we see and know, in some sense, is not the whole world. Pessoa is correct to say that our world is defined by the way we perceive it.

 

But what Pessoa meant in his quote was not so much about physics and the limitations of the human body to sense and experience the world. How we think about the world constructs the reality we live within. The narratives and stories we come up with describe ourselves, define the society we live in, and explain what we do are the things that make up our reality. We can be wrong about these perceptions, like when we hear someone near-by laugh and assume they are laughing about us. We should be aware of the thoughts and narratives we create about the world and we should be willing to question them. We should work to have the most clear picture of the world possible, always understanding that there is more happening than we can ever know, and always remembering that how we perceive the world will determine the reality we see in front of us.

You Are Not Just Yourself

“Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed,” Seneca wrote in a letter saved in the book Letters From a Stoic, “the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character when the world at large assaults it!”

The way we think about ourselves is that we are conscious actors in control of our behaviors, beliefs, worldviews, and actions. Who we are and what we do is under our control. We decide if we want to engage with people, shut ourselves in our room and read all day, be nice to strangers, gossip about our co-workers, and eat at Taco Bell. The reality however, is that much of who we are and what we do is influenced by the people and situations around us. I was recently listening to Rob Reid’s podcast, After On, and his guest described a study looking at the neighbors of people who win new cars as prizes. The number of people who purchase a new car within a short time period after their neighbor wins a car is larger than you would expect just by chance. People seem to be changing their car buying habits when their neighbor gets lucky and wins a new car.

We are never the version of ourselves that is in control of our decisions and behaviors. How we think about the world and what we see when we look at ourselves, the people around us, and the situations we find ourselves in is influenced by the people around us. As Seneca describes, our friends and neighbors can make us feel certain ways, even if we never wanted to feel the way they make us feel. Situations that seem meaningless, like a neighbor buying a new car, can change the way we feel about ourselves.

This idea can be liberating in the sense that we don’t have to believe that we are fully in control of everything. We don’t have to believe that we operate as a completely independent and objective CEO, rationally making perfect decisions about everything. We can take some pressure off of ourselves.

At the same time, this idea can be frustrating. It says that no matter how much you try, things are going to influence you whether you want them to or not. It means that you may be out of luck if you try to change your behavior or try to see the world in a new way. You may have too many forces pushing on you for you to really get outside of the situation that you find yourself in.

Seneca continues, “You should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.” The advice Seneca gives as a reaction to our susceptibility to be influenced so heavily by the people and world around ourselves is to build to our self-awareness. Reflect deeply on how we act and behave and think about the ways we wish to act and behave. Find people who can be mentors and guides in living the life you think is meaningful, and then turn around and do what you can to help others, because you will learn more by helping others than just by doing. Recognize that you don’t have it all figured out on your own, and that you won’t always see everything happening around you, but try to build your awareness and try to focus on continual improvement. Not in a flashy way, but in a confident way that is always available for those wish to tap into it.

Selective Attention

I listened to an episode of the After On podcast this last week, and the guest, Dr. Don Hoffman, suggested that our brains did not evolve to help us understand reality, but evolved to help us survive, which often did not require that our ancestors have the most accurate view of reality but instead had the perceptions necessary to avoid lions, work as a tribe, and pick healthy berries. What we see when we look around us is only a small fraction of the world, our eyes are only able to perceive a rather narrow range of electromagnetic radiation (light). With the fact that our brains did not evolve to give us the most clear picture of reality and with our inability to fully perceive all of reality, we must remember that there are reasons to be skeptical of the thoughts produced by our brain.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, author Colin Wright discusses the outcomes of our brains cognitive shortcomings. He writes, “This tendency to pay more attention to the seeming unlikely events that happen to and around us is called “selective attention.” Our brains have a bias toward patterns, and ignore so called uninteresting data…” Wright suggests that this is part of the reason our brains our so bad at statistical thinking as I described yesterday. Statistics is hard because we selectively pick out certain things as important and have a distorted memory of the world based on what we happened to see and notice. Wright continues describing what this means for us, “Which in turn result in our finding meaning in what is almost certainly meaningless…familiarity and feeling of significance is merely the consequence of our brains wigging out over the perceived connection, due to its pattern-finding predilections. Because that’s what it does.”

 

When we recognize that we did not evolve to develop a perfect view of what is happening around us and that our brains only selectively record a small chunk of reality, we can begin to think about how approach the world. We know our brains look for patterns and behave quickly, but that the patterns the brain picks out might not be fully correct or meaningful. We don’t have to eat Pringles every time our team is in the playoffs, because we are aware that our brain is making a false connection between us eating specific chips and our favorite team winning based on a perception that doesn’t really exist. What I am ultimately getting at is that our brains can invent realities that seem reasonable, but are based on cognitive errors, selective attention, and don’t actually align with the physical reality of the universe. We make sense out of meaningless things around us and start to attach symbolic importance to things that should not have any importance in our lives.

 

This distorted reality may not be a problem at an individual level with how any of us move through our lives. No one is going to care too much if you believe you need to drink a specific coffee every morning or sit in a specific spot, but as this mode of thinking scales up to a societal level, we must recognize that beliefs resulting from cognitive bias and error can lead to a world that doesn’t operate equitably for all members of society. Public policy must be grounded in the best empirical science and data that we can collect (even if our interpretation of the data is always going to be imperfect) so that we can distribute our finite resources in a reasonable way, and we must cut through our false narratives to avoid stigmatizing groups and discriminating against people who see the world differently from us.