This post is a continuation of my previous post: ‘The Science of Me – Perception – PART TWO / Teaching a Monkey to Swim Chapter 2’, and is taken from a book I am currently working on entitled ‘Teaching a Monkey to Swim’ that is my study and exploration of the nature of human perception. The following is a first draft.
I purposely do not use citations unless I feel it adds something of interest. The intention of this book is to encourage you to explore your own sense of perception, and the beliefs that underly it.
Shame-faced, Bare-faced lies and the TRUTH
The Problems with Perception: The lies we accept as truth, and the truths we ignore.
Will you take the stairs or the slide?
I awoke this morning and asked my eldest son how he knew that the stairs were outside the room without looking. He paused for a moment to think, then looked at me quizzically and said, “Well, because they are”. I could see that he wanted to go and check just to make sure that his assumption was correct. My son is six years old, and already at his young age he is programmed to make certain ‘seemingly’ common assumptions about the world that he exists in, even though he has no real awareness or knowledge of any underlying scientific principles that might give his assumptions validity. He relies on his memory of the stairs being there outside of his immediately perceivable environment, i.e. the room that he currently occupies, in order for his assumption to have validity.
Then I asked him, how would he know that the stairs were there if he closed his eyes and tried to make his way to them, how would he be sure that he could find his way without being able to see them? He laughed and then paused to think again. For my son and for many of us we rely on some kind of visual stimulus in order to give us evidence that the room around us, or the stairs outside the room actually exist outside of our memory. I could tell that my son was already working out in his head how he would have to shift his sense of physical awareness, that is, use his other senses in order to feel his way to the stairs now that his vision was hypothetically impaired. Without sight his assumptions about the nature of the stairs’ existence had been dramatically altered.
Then I suggested to him a scenario whereby he woke up one morning assuming that the stairs were still there, but for some reason as he followed his usual assumptions and tried to walk down them to go and have breakfast he discovered that they had disappeared! Feel free to fill in the blanks here with whatever assumptions you like. He looked shocked that his usual assumption had been challenged, and then inquisitive as he constructed a scenario that would explain the phenomenon of the vanishing stair. I then asked him, “What if the stairs had been replaced by a big slide?”, at which point his face suddenly changed to a look of excitement as he imagined himself sliding down to breakfast at speed!
The idea appealed to him so much that as he made his way down the stairs on his behind he was imagining the sensation of sliding down them very fast. My guess here is that he will remember the morning that the stairs in this house became a slide for a long time to come. In a subtle but very powerful way his assumption about the validity of the stairs has been altered because the details of his memory have been changed, by changing the emotional significance he has attached to them.
As I made my own way down the stairs with my eyes focussed at the bottom step I could feel myself anticipating the impact of the step beneath my foot, and with each successive step recalling that sensation and thus confirming that my assumption was valid.
Fear of the Unknown
We rely heavily on our memory in order to validate the experience that we are having, indeed more than we do our physical senses. An examination of your immediate responses to your current experience will clarify this for you. So when we talk about being afraid or nervous regarding a scenario that we haven’t yet encountered, we are searching for a point of reference within our memories from which we can create familiar and safe assumptions. If however, we don’t find any then we will more than likely fill the gap in our memory with a scenario that befits our expectations based upon the particular fears and worries that we may have. Beliefs that in turn may have their source in what we might deem to be the influence of popular culture.
From my personal experience very young children do not seem to display this level of inhibition, often putting themselves in potentially dangerous circumstances (that is, dangerous from an outside more culturally engrained point of view). They simply react to their environment and their desire to explore and experience it first hand. Like my son at age six, he is only just becoming aware and learning to subscribe to models of popular cultural belief prevalent within his sphere of experience. Therefore, it is only with age and further physical development of cognitive skills that the very young child begins to change, as they become more aware of how they fit in socially. This in my own opinion and from personal subjective observation, is demonstrative of the way in which we all project outwardly and thus subscribe to models of current popular belief about what is acceptable in terms of expressing personal experience.
In fact even though our actual, and by this I mean physical experience of an unfamiliar event may be different to how we had first imagined it, it may nevertheless carry the sentiment or emotion of the original assumption, that then alters the meaning that we attach the overall experience. Much like my son and his stair-slide. Therefore, we build a trust of certain experiences over others based on the underlying belief structure that we adopt. Memories have a validity of their own, without an attachment of what you may call physical sense-data. The memory of having experienced something through the physical senses then only adds to the validity of the assumptions we make and thus of our expectations. However, why should this be so?
Once again, I believe it is because we are taught on a social level to trust the stories that we are told, whether through family or wider culture. One such story being that direct experience through the physical senses is more valid, therefore more trustworthy than something that we cannot physically relate to. However, what you begin to realise on yet closer examination is, that it is our memory and the emotional attachment to that memory that gives our lives a sense of integrity, not the direct physical sensation of the experience of life itself.
The physical is almost secondary to the emotive intent in simple terms. Many of our beliefs about the integrity of what we know to be our reality and experience, based on this premise suddenly take on a very dubious hue. If our subjective experience is all that we have to go on in order to build a memory of a coherent experience, then everything is merely based on a very good guess and is open to debate and change, and change it does. Every version of an experience, albeit similar to the ‘previous’ one is not the same, nor can it ever be. The sense of permanence that say our room, or our stair may have is based on our memory of it having existed previously, and the way that we remember having interacted with it on an emotional level, that then colours our expectation of the way we will perceive the ‘supposedly’ familiar yet actually ‘new version’ of the room or stair.
Of course then, the question arises: Are we actually the same person perceiving each version of the room at any given time when our sense of continuity and thus time is based on memory alone, or are there multiple versions of us co-existing outside of our usual field of perception?
Could it be that the reason we don’t perceive all of our selves in a given moment is simply a quirk of our current beliefs, and that perhaps by shifting our conscious focus and altering those beliefs we could in fact become more aware of those other selves, or something else entirely?
The Truth That Lies Behind the Lie
The ‘truth’ or validity of your experience depends on what you make of it based on the above analogy. Instead of giving you cause to worry and doubt that your perception of reality, life, existence is in any way compromised or less valid because you cannot actually pin-point anything outside of your memory and direct experience, you should perhaps realise the flexibility that your imagination and therefore memory has, and the potential to imagine and thus create new memories that are just as valid as the ‘previous’ ones. It becomes clear that any notion of time is utterly memory dependent.
You also have the opportunity to examine your immediate surroundings, and examine the memories that they trigger for you. You may begin to see with closer examination that nothing is randomly placed within your perceived environment. Everything has meaning, and that is how and why you remember a particular person or layout of a room. The things that you don’t recall have less relevance to you in your present moment. A detail that you may recall at another given moment, may currently escape you because it isn’t relevant right now to your present story, i.e. it carries no meaning for you right now.
We take photographs of people that we care about so that we are able to recall their faces clearly and thus recall and emotionally reinforce the memory that we have of them, yet without the photograph we soon discover the transient and fluid nature of memory, and how vague it can become without applied focus.