Things are not what they seem.
Though our survival depends upon our fellow humans perceiving the same reality as our own, the very assumptions of a consensus reality are:
Every aspect of the world in which we live, every* objectively true fact upon which we build our lives is, in fact, constructed. Everything is first perceived by your senses, then interpreted by your brain.
Perceived by your senses
Look at this!
Isn’t it amazing?
Such craftmanship…strong boards, clean lines and, well, and can you imagine the courage it must have taken to build it so close to an active volcano?
Were you confused at first? You thought I was going to say “Hey look at this erupting volcano!” and then I said something about craftsmanship… volcanos aren’t crafted, so your brow probably furrowed for a second until it occurred to you that i was talking about the bridge path.
You’ve just hit on the reason we all believe that we are living in a consensus world.
If you ever took psychology 101 you probably heard about salience in your super dry chapter on perception. Psychological salience is the quality that some things have to grab your attention. Usually those things are the things that are likeliest to kill you- novel things, for example, or startling things.
Remember back when we used to go to restaurants and you were sitting at your table engrossed in conversation with all your closest friends? (Take a moment in bask in the memory: remember the basket of bread? The way the waiter would take your plates away? The delicate sauces and unusual vegetables so unlike the macaroni and cheese and cereal we make at home. Mmmm. Bliss.)
Ok, so your friend has been gearing up to tell you big news, she’s laid all the ground work and is preparing to bring it home. You are on the edge of your seat, ready to be amazed and then:
An entire tray of dishes hit the floor and the restaurant goes silent. Every head swivels towards the waiter standing over the broken crockery… including yours.
A riveting story, forgotten in the blink of an eye.
In the top image, the salient thing was the erupting volcano. No one is noticing the excellent bridge path when the volcano is erupting, because the volcano, like the dishes, clearly has salience.
But that’s not always the case. Take a look at this:
Were you like, “What I am looking at? Is it the moon or the tree or the boat or the mountain?” Or maybe color has salience for you and you said “What, the contrast between eggplant and salmon?”
Interpreted by your brain
When there’s no clear salience, our own subjective experiences guide us to make sense of our surroundings. For me, perhaps it’s the moon because I read a lot of werewolf stories as a kid. For you, perhaps its the cotton tails and you find yourself humming some bluegrass music. We don’t emphasize the same things in the picture because our particular brains give salience to particular, familiar things.
Much of life is like this eggplant and salmon masterpiece.
There’s no clear salience and so we look at the world through our lens and see, again, what we always see. Our brain is seeking familiarity and finds it.
It’s worth knowing three things from this foray into perception.
There’s a reason that optical illusions and magic tricks are such enduring favorites. Over and over again we are blown away by the realization that what we are perceiving with our own eyes (ears, mouths, fingers) isn’t as firm as it seems. It feels so concrete! So sure! So REAL. It rocks our foundations to realize that our truth is not entirely shared by others.
This week, we’re going to be reminded every day that our perception is subjective and that reality is an illusion… get ready for a week of optical illusions, mind boggling tricks you can play on yourself, and one key psychological insight:
Since we are constructing everything* anyway, we might as well construct the life we want.
*PS- Are we really constructing everything? EVERYTHING? Good question. And there do seem to be a few things that are constructed by humans again and again- over time, across cultures, and regardless of context. Those things seem to be “real” in a way that most everything else isn’t. But that’s not the point of Perception Week! Don’t get caught up in the exception that proves the rule! Instead, stay with me and allow yourself to consider how much choice you actually have about the world in which you live. When you choose, you win.
Amanda Crowell, PhD is a cognitive psychologist obsessed with how people make change. She is best known for translating cutting edge research into practical strategies that can be used right away.