Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Perception ≠ Reality = Perception

"Lines between perception, desire and reality may become blurred, redundant or interchangeable."
Community finale

Perception ≠ Reality
I was raised, like so many others, with a deep-rooted fear and suspicion of Other People, this faceless mass whose sole reason of existence is to screw you over and judge you for being who you are. "What will People think?" was a very big thing over at my house, as I imagine it being at many other houses just like my own. Needless to say, who I was did not give this imaginary group of people much cause for approval. And it was very clear that if People thought the wrong thing, this would certainly lead to a horrible death of some sort.

Having this instilled fear as your base attitude for dealing with the non-fictional people you meet outside your house is a pretty shitty starting point, for obvious reasons. You don't exactly step out to meet them with open arms. Instead, you hide what's inside you and obsessively look for clues on how to fit in,1 while confirmation bias assures you day in day out that you are right, and the outside world is a treacherous place filled with people who want to harm you.

Succumbing to confirmation bias is nothing to be ashamed of. Human brains just aren't very good at dealing with information that conflicts with their core beliefs. Rather than getting lost in a messy tangle of possible interpretations whenever a situation presents itself, we tend to interpret that situation so that it confirms our earlier opinions. This robust system allows us to deal with the world in a somewhat efficient manner, which is exactly why our brain has evolved this way. The problem is that when our view of the world is mainly negative, confirmation bias can have a disastrous effect.

But perception ≠ reality. Like all important, earth-shattering insights, this sounds like the most banal thing anyone has ever uttered, and yet, there are people who go through their entire adult life without ever realizing this, which is sad, because these lives are often reigned by devastating paranoia.
That person talking in a hushed voice over there? Totally gossiping about you. Those guys asking you to sign their petition? Scam artists! That friend complimenting your appearance? Sarcasm!
These examples are worthy of eye-rolling because of how clear-cut and easily disregarded they are. Of course this is not the way you think. But the problem with confirmation bias is that it doesn't just shape our interpretations of things, it also shapes our behavior in ways that are far more subtle than just not smiling very often or avoiding eye contact with strangers. The way fear becomes interwoven in our entire existence helps bring about the exact type of situation that we are trying so desperately to avoid.2

For everything you perceive, there are a) a million things you failed to perceive and b) a million possible interpretations for what the situation actually means.
Maybe the reason someone doesn't enthusiastically come over to greet you isn't because they don't like you, but because you aren't exactly the picture of warm cordiality when you run into them either. Maybe they are unsure of whether you like them. Maybe they didn't see you. Maybe they are in a hurry to go to somewhere unpleasant. Maybe their freaking dog just died.
The interpretation you eventually arrive at is entirely determined by what your base attitude was in the first place. A former roommate of mine once put it like this: "Sometimes, you go outside and all the girls are pretty, and sometimes you go outside and all the girls are ugly." He wasn't talking about the weather.

Reality = Perception
The second insight I want to talk about here has a couple of different routes you can take to get there. You can get there by doing lots of drugs, or by being really into philosophy or psychology, or simply by being smarter than I am. For me, it was mainly the former (though supplemented by the latter further down the line). Suddenly having the keys to unlock a universe where everything was connected by love, all people were united in their pursuit of this love, and the overwhelming trust that everything was how it was supposed to be led to a period where I was doing drugs religiously, because this universe was so radically opposed to everything life had been for me up to that point that the first time I set foot in it was like a mystical experience.3 This may sound a bit sad in light of what happened to me later, but if I don't own what I learned from it, those years will have truly been for nothing. And, aside from an endless supply of anecdotes that all share the same basic setup, the one great gift I cherish from that time is the knowledge that even as this universe of love was just a fabrication of my own mind, so is this universe of fear. So is any other reality we create for ourselves. This is true when you are happy, and it is true when you are depressed.

There is no way of knowing what is real outside of the perception of our own mind, because there is no way we can ever step outside of ourselves. Everything we know about reality has to first pass as raw information through our senses, and then be interpreted by our mind through the filter of whatever mood it is in at the time. You only need to have one of those ridiculously heated arguments about what specific color a certain object is to feel the shortcomings of this system.
Once again, though, the reason our brain works like this is because it is more efficient this way. Tons of psychological experiments have shown that while we think we are aware of our surroundings at all times, we actually only perceive those things we pay attention to. With regards to our visual field, for example, what we think is a detailed picture that is up to date at all times, is actually a vague sketch filled in with what we assume is going on. This is the reason we get startled when something suddenly disrupts this illusion (The shrub in the corner of our eye turns out to be a man! Or the one that always gets me: the man turns out to be mannequin! Eek!).
In philosophy, the notion that the reality we perceive is a perfect representation of reality as it exists out there is called naive realism. It's called that because, well...

While attentional bias selects what we perceive at any given moment, narrative bias makes sure that we tend to only remember events that fit our mood. It takes a surprising amount of conscious effort to remember every little detail of your day exactly the way it happened, and even then, research tells us we get much of it wrong. What we do get right is making sure that the things we do remember fit our story. It's not that we didn't notice our neighbor's cheerful wave or the way the autumn light catches the trees on a particularly stressful day, it's just that these things get filed away as unimportant almost instantly in favor of the memory of that bus you missed, that coffee you spilled, and the way that one coworker is always looking at her phone when you are talking to her. These are the things you'll surely remember come nightfall. Again, this is a very strict selection of an endless list of fairly unimportant events where to remember all of them would necessitate a brain the size of a minivan. The selection you do end up making though, could pretty much tell any kind of story you want. This is exactly what happens when we are depressed, or anxious, or in love. Overwhelmed by confirming evidence, we literally can not see the other side.

It can be pretty unsettling to confront the fact that the only reality you'll ever have will always be a fabrication of your own mind, but it can also be the most powerful knowledge you'll ever have, because there is an important consequence.

We can choose our reality
This is a difficult thing to bring up, because through the ages it has been beaten into the ground by so many different peddlers of woo. 'The Secret', anyone? 'The Law of Attraction', maybe?4
The horrible thing about woo-peddlers is that they tend to take simple truths about life and then slap on as many layers of bullshit as they need to turn them into foundations for a lucrative industry, making it very hard for rational people like you and I to liberate that little nugget of truth and talk about it without sounding like complete idiots. But simple truths they remain. Everyone knows that on those days when you step outside and "all the girls are pretty", things generally seem to go your way. People seem to treat you differently. Your hair finally does what it's supposed to. Even traffic lights turn green.

"The Secret" here of course isn't that you "attract" these things by your attitude, it's simply that out of the million different things that might enter your awareness at any given moment, confirmation bias assures you that you pay more attention to the ones that fit your mood.

You may still drop everything and stub your toe, but on a good day, you just laugh about it (well, maybe not about the toe) and forget about it ten minutes later. You may indeed smile more genuinely and stand up straight with your tits out, which might influence other people's behavior a slight bit, but the most important difference is in your own perception of things. Because let's face it; whatever you do, your hair pretty much looks the same most days anyway, and there is no way you have any influence at all over traffic lights.5 Those girls just look pretty because you see them that way.

There are people who have somehow dodged the installation of the Great Fear we all inherited from society and our parents, and manage to keep up this kind of positive attitude towards the world at all times, and they are unicorns. They are so rare in fact I've only ever known a handful of them and have exactly one in my life right now.6 I regard them with the quiet awe and fascination we reserve for encountering endangered animals in the wild. Luckily, their confirmation bias effectively protects them from being creeped out by my regarding them in this manner. In fact, it seems to protect them from a lot of things as they hitch-hike and couch-surf their way across the globe, making friends all along the way.

"But don't they get screwed?" you of course wonder.
Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. The amazing thing is that even if they do get robbed or conned or taken advantage of by someone with bad intentions, they never take it as hard as the rest of us might. They don't see it as confirmation that the human race is inherently bad and out to get them, but just brush it off as a bad thing that once happened. Which is what it is.

The question ultimately becomes: which reality do you want to live in?

Things may not be as simple as just answering this question. After all, confirmation bias only confirms what you truly believe, so the kind of attitude that shapes your reality cannot exactly be faked. Like Dumbo's feather, it only works if you really believe in it. But there's a certain 'fake-it-until-you-make-it' aspect to it that starts with the willingness to question your own beliefs. Next time you are appalled by someone's behavior, try to think of at least one other possible reason why they might act this way, even if it's just for sport (you can still think they're an asshole, if you want). If you're having a bad day, try to remember at least one good thing that did happen. The reason those gratitude exercises you keep hearing about really work, is because they help restore balance to your skewed narrative of the day. The times when they are most difficult, and the only thing you can come up with is "I have fingers" (a personal favorite of mine), may be the times when it is most important that you do them. It can provide you with a powerful counter narrative when bad things happen, or when the Fear of Other People takes you over. As you can gather from this post, I still struggle with this immensely. But I'm working on it.

Answering this question can be a starting point to questioning your very reality, and with time, altering it. It may never be the sort of hippie wonderland controlled substances provide, or where those happy-go-lucky unicorns seem to dwell, but it can definitely change for the better.

It may open the doors of perception just enough to catch a glimpse of the endless possibilities that lie beyond.

link to source

1 Fun fact: when I was about 12, there was a girl in my class whose posture I would consciously study and try to emulate, because of how much more casual she looked when just standing around. The body of anthropological research some of us accumulate while still in elementary school can be mind-boggling.
2 There's a great line in Infinite Jest that goes: "That evil people never believe they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil." And a bit further down: "That the people to be the most frightened of are the people who are the most frightened." I've been quite massively obsessed with Infinite Jest lately, which might explain the footnote-heaviness of this post. Another absolutely fantastic thing to check out is DFW's famous 'This is Water' speech, which ties in nicely to everything this post is about, but from a different angle.
3 Sadly, this did not make the evening news.
4 I'm not linking to that shit. Google it, if you must.
5 I might some day, but my mindfulness training hasn't quite reached this point yet.
6 If you are reading this, yes, I mean you, you wonderful freak :p


  1. Unicorns are awesome!

    Also, did I already recommend You Are Now Less Dumb? (http://youarenotsosmart.com/2013/07/30/my-new-book-you-are-now-less-dumb-available-now/) Because it fits with this and is relevant to your interests and caused me, within the first two chapters, to freak out, throw it down, and have existential and epistemological crises. It was horrible. But I had to read the whole thing so that I could know just how non-functional all our brains are. (It did me more harm than the week in Philosophy 101 where we talked about all the different possible natures of reality and how we could never know. That was just intriguing theorising, whereas this book is science *proving* we have no clue and we *can't* have one.)

    One ridiculous side effect of a book that told me how wrong my perception of reality was is that I decided it didn't really matter if I spent a lot of time lost in my head because *everything* was in my head anyway. As long as the cat doesn't get neglected and the bills get paid, I give up on knowing reality or trying to cling to it :-P

  2. Yeah you did, and I read about half of it :-) Most of the stuff it's about I'd read about before at uni (and before that, when I was on my philosophy of mind/evolutionary psychology kick), but I like that the experiments mentioned aren't the same ones as in all the other books, so it did have some new cool stories :) Will finish it sometime though!

  3. You could take on the Fear of Other People by becoming a metaphysical solipsist!

  4. That won't stop me from imagining them as being scary though...

  5. Wait wait, I think I need to read this again!!

    Lazy Penguins

  6. Samaira Khan7/21/15, 3:20 PM

    great beauty tips