Updated: Feb 10
It has been a while since I have tried to articulate my thoughts on a complex topic so bear with me as I stumble through this. I feel this topic is essential to take on, at least for my sanity. Further, this endeavour will help me practise my writing skills for which I will employ a tone of authority, sometimes even bordering on arrogance. With formalities addressed, let me take you on a trip through my thoughts on perception and reality.
Let me start with a question to encourage contemplation. Can we realize reality? If your answer is yes, I urge you to consider the following quote by Carl Jung, one of the foremost contributors to the field of psychoanalysis and philosophy:
“It is my mind, with its store of images, that gives the world colour and sound; and that supremely real and rational certainty which I can "experience" is, in its most simple form, an exceedingly complicated structure of mental images. Thus there is, in a certain sense, nothing that is directly experienced except the mind itself. Everything is mediated through the mind, translated, filtered, allegorized, twisted, even falsified by it. We are . . . enveloped in a cloud of changing and endlessly shifting images.” (1)
Jung was not alone. His thoughts find support from the philosophical branch of solipsism which is based on the belief that nothing is certain except the mind. We are definitely experiencing a reality, but it is just that – an experience. We only perceive the world through our subjective lenses. Our perception might be shared with one, many, or none but this is not evidence for. Acceptance by many says absolutely nothing about how close one’s perception might come to actual reality.
Neuroscientist and psychologist, Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research offers key insights into how our brains work. Our brains have evolved to make predictions. Allostasis is the primary aim of these predictions which are based on our previous experiences and learning. Also, our brains do not have direct access to the outside world and therefore builds simulations, or mental models, from the information it receives from our senses to aid us to perceive the world coherently. These simulations are assisted by concepts, which are models we have built of things in the world based on our previous experiences with those things. These concepts help us organize sensory information into meaningful form. Without them, we would be experientially blind. Quite expectedly, these simulations and predictions are prone to errors and our brain copes by constantly them against incoming stimuli. Then, it can either update the prediction or continue to soak in prediction error even when there is conflicting evidence. In short, our brains predict, simulate, compare, and then resolve errors. How we experience the outside world is largely based on what our brain has predicted for us based on its previous experiences in similar contexts. A reactive brain is resource-intensive and predicting is how our brain helps us get by.
In her book, ‘How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain’ (2), Lisa wonderfully illustrates this with a simple example which I will shamelessly use here:
Read the following sentence:
Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom far beyond the most distant mountains, there lived a beautiful princess who bled to death.
If you found the last few words surprising or unexpected, it is because your brain made a prediction error based on your previous experiences with fairy tales and then proceeded to quickly correct it based on the new information encountered. This happens within a second and we barely realize this process. If you go back and read that sentence, you will find that you no longer construct surprise or have a prediction error (2). But what happens if we do not have novel information to update our incorrect predictions? Would we not continue to predict and simulate incorrectly believing it to be true?
Our reality as we experience it is just one big simulation offered to us by our brains which have no direct access to the outside world. It is merely processing millions of gigabytes of sensory information and attempts to present a coherent simulation using concepts we have constructed from previous experiences.
So why is any of this relevant? Is it worth our time to contemplate this? Well, if we are accepting that this is how we function – that we are merely interpreting reality – are we not acknowledging then that there are infinite interpretations? We are opening a can of worms now. Whose perception is accurate? Is there a perception out there that stands true or takes precedence? Are we acknowledging the existence of an objective reality, or does reality itself exist only in our perceptions?
Is it too late to scoop up all the worms that have escaped? Possibly, yes.
Returning to the essence of this article, I am boldly stating that it is arrogant and mindless to assume that our perception is an accurate reflection of reality. I firmly believe that narrow-mindedness is the default setting and that our growth as a species is dependent on our potential to expand our perceptions. We evolved when we started recognizing fire as a tool rather than just a threat. When we included ‘transportation’ in our concept for ‘things spherical objects can be used for', we advanced. When we saw lightning as ‘energy’ rather than ‘killing beam of light sent by the Gods’, we grew. Expanding our perceptions leads to growth. Why is it not the norm to gather as many perspectives as possible?
Firstly, it is a strenuous task that takes up valuable resources and time. Our body’s budget is limited, and predictions make it easier to live our lives. Constantly coming up with multiple perspectives is uncomfortable and resource-intensive. Often, it is impractical to carry out a time-consuming analysis before making decisions and actions. Secondly, this skill is unnatural and requires time and patience to build. It needs to be cultivated intentionally and will definitely be challenging to acquire.
I consider the last reason as the biggest obstacle. We are not asked to do so. This is not a mainstream conversation, and the world does not promote this. School systems do not encourage this. Our governments (read as ‘Most governments) do not want a population capable of forming alternative perspectives as it threatens their authority and power. The external world offers minimal encouragement to embark on this new way of living.
I firmly believe that we can become better persons and build better societies if we even merely attempt to expand our perception. Imagine looking at the world through a myriad of multi-coloured windows. Imagine finding a door or breaking down an entire wall. Imagine how rich our perceptions would be if we could freely borrow from others. Imagine what our impact on this world might be like then.
Let me use an example to show how this might pan out.
Consider the issue of gender inequality. Most men do not consider women as equals. Most people immediately disregard anyone that identifies outside the binary. Discrimination is rampant, and the privileged take from the rest.
Now, what would happen if men can take on the perspective of women? What if they can experience, personally and intently, the struggle women face every day? What if they could truly feel the fear of being stalked by a man after dark? What if men could experience the injustice doled out to women in the workplace? Would men still choose to be discriminatory or question the adverse contributions of patriarchy?
What if both these genders could feel the intense despair, fear, and self-doubt that come with the erasure of a person’s chosen identity? Would we dare hesitate to acknowledge and accommodate people on or outside the gender spectrum? Discrimination is a problem that is maintained by a lack of perspective. If we were privy to every perspective that exists in a conflict, would we not find it easier to meet each other as humans and find a solution?
So, what would actually change in the world? What is the point of all this?
Firstly, we would see a breakdown of barriers. Racism, sexism, casteism, classism, and other hierarchies would disintegrate. A society striving to expand its perception is antonymous with one that discriminates. Secondly, we would see a reduction in conflicts or at least, see faster resolutions and reduced violence. Why would we fight when our first instinct is to understand the other? Thirdly, countries would open up and work towards a global society. An ecosystem that fosters openness to others' perceptions will make it easier for us to co-operate and co-exist. Lastly, we would build for ourselves a society that is inclusive, empathetic, and compassionate.
If you think that I am being far-fetched and utopian, I completely agree. This sounds like the dream journal of a rosy-eyed, aspiring social scientist. Unfortunately (or rather, fortunately), I am allowed to hope.
Saying that, even I agree that it is more practical to consider the individual benefits that come from having such an attitude. An individual will see benefits in at least three aspects: communication, decision-making, and compassion. They will find themselves being open to people and their experiences. As a result, people would be attracted to this individual because they attempt to truly listen and accept. With more perspectives, an individual will have a better understanding of their choices and respective consequences. They would make better decisions as they become more mindful and conscientious. Finally, the individual who embarks on this journey of expansion will tend to be more accepting of another’s experience. They will value another’s experience as they value their own. This will help them become more compassionate. It is of little doubt then that such an individual will be highly valued by society.
With this, I have reached the end of my thoughts on this matter. There are always multiple perspectives available. Our brains simulate and predict based on our interoceptions, past experiences, and current context. To consider this simulation as reality is mindless. To assume our perception is true and accurate is arrogant and possibly harmful. In most cases, it is beneficial to be mindful and expand our perception, especially to include narratives that exist outside our comfort zones. If successful, we might build better relationships and become better persons. If collectively successful, we will be equipped to construct a more compassionate society and a better future for ourselves.
1. Jung, C. G., Adler, G. & Hull, R. F. c. Spirit and Life. in Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8 – Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche: 008 608 (Princeton University Press, 1992).
2. Barrett, L. F. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).