Educating Perception

You might think the world is the world, what you see is what is there. The truth is the truth. Yet, how does the world feel with no hands to touch it? If your ears were sensitive to sounds lower in pitch, would you hear collisions of molecules in the air? What a different world that would be! If you could see a tree in infrared, would the tree have a halo around it and seem blessed? Humans can hear sounds up to 20,000 cycles per second. Mice, whales, and bats can hear sounds at 100,000 per second. How would your experience of the world change if sound were your dominant sense, not sight? A dog can differentiate over 250,000 odors, a human maybe 10,000. How would your experience of the world change if smell were your dominant sense? The world perceived is dependent on the sensory system that perceives it.

 

A tragedy occurs in your social world and for you “the world is tragic.” You see a red rose, a frightening auto accident, and a beautiful sunset. Are the red of the rose, the fear, and the beauty objective elements that exist independent of humans? And the classic: when a tree falls in the forest and no human or animal is there to hear it, is there a sound?

 

To what degree is the truth perceived dependent on the person who perceives it? The world appears differently to different people, but how big can the difference be? A human baby’s sense of smell and taste, and the sensitivity of their skin, is well developed at birth. Sound takes a little longer. A baby immediately looks for and can see faces right away, but seeing full people, or the whole context of a room they are in, develops gradually over a year or more. Not everyone can see colors. If you have the ability to see color, imagine the world from the perspective of a color-blind person. Or imagine what it would be like for a person from the 12th Century to visit the US today, or vice versa. It makes great science fiction. Yet, most of us insist our view of what is real is the one and only view. To some degree, we need that to survive. How long would you live if you stepped off the curb, a car came at you, and you stopped to debate whether you should see the car from the perspective of an ant or a human? Culture, historical time period, personal history, age, social context, etc. all condition your perceptions and ways of thinking.

 

How do you answer these questions? And how could a teacher explore them with students? One way to explore this is through developing mindful self-awareness. Another is through studying the science and analyzing the vocabulary of perception. For example, what differentiates a sensation from a perception? The two words are often used similarly and ambiguously. Sensation is often used in psychology to refer to the stimulation of sense receptors or to raw sense information, before the information is interpreted or becomes conscious. However, a perception is conscious.

 

So how would sound be defined? It too is often used ambiguously. Is a sound the sound wave produced when a tree falls? Or the perception of the sound waves produced by a tree falling? If it is the latter, then an ear is necessary for hearing to occur, and there is no sound without a hearer, no taste without a taster.

 

Children of all ages enjoy trying to figure out optical illusions. In schools, you could study what these illusions demonstrate about your senses and sense of reality. For example, there is the figure-ground principle and salienceSalience means value or importance; your brain assigns value to certain parts of the visual field. Your attention is selective. You don’t (consciously) perceive all that passes before you (even if some part of us is aware of it all). We have thresholds, dividing lines in all the senses, above which you are aware, below you are unaware. If you were consciously aware of every stimuli in your environment, you would die, burn out. Figure-ground refers to how you pick out elements of a visual stimuli to focus on and the rest becomes background. For example, there are illusions of faces, like the Rubin Vase or the old-young woman figure. (Take a look at the provided links to see examples of the illusions discussed.)

 

Another principle is that of meaningfulness. No perception is without interpretation and meaning, and this meaning usually appears as an element of the objects perceived, not as an element of the mind perceiving. This is illustrated by the blind spot in your eye. In the back of the retina there is an area where there are no receptor cells. It is where the optic nerve forms to transmit information to the brain. Yet, you don’t see an empty spot in your visual field. Your brain “fills in” the spot. Other illustrations of how the brain can fill in “holes” in your field of perception to make the scene meaningful are the illusion where a Dalmatian dog appears out of a scene of black and white spots, or when you perceive an incomplete figure as complete. Did you ever drive at dusk or at night in a fog and misperceive something in your peripheral vision?

 

A few other principles can deepen the discussion. For example, a perceptual set is a pre-set or habitual manner of perceiving phenomena. This can be illustrated in various ways. For one, the young-old woman ambiguous figure. Show one half of a class of students pictures of old women. Show the other half pictures of young women. Then show them the optical illusion. There’s a good chance the students who saw the pictures of the young women will see the young woman first in the ambiguous figure. This would work better, of course, if none of your students had ever seen the ambiguous figure. The principle can also be seen with illusions of perspective, for example, those which illustrate how train tracks appear to narrow in the distance—or illusions of context and expectation, such as the one above where you see the 13, when you read 12, 13, 14; or you see a B as you read A, B, C.

 

With ambiguous figures, all the information to perceive either figure is present. You only see one figure at a time. For example, in the Rubin vase illusion, you can either see a vase or two faces—you never perceive both the vase and the faces at once. When you see the vase, you will swear the drawing is only of a vase. Yet, you can go back and forth between interpretations. There is no correct way to see the ambiguous figure, but you can understand the ambiguity of perception.

 

The depth and accuracy of a perception can be increased (or decreased) by how the perceiver is educated.

 

Does this mean that there is no truth? I think it means that truth is interdependent with context, mind—with the universe in which the perceiver of truth appears. Physicist and author Jeremy Hayward calls perception a “creative dance.” “[A]s we move through the world, we don’t see what is really there. We experience a mutual creation between what is there and the ideas and emotions that seem fitting at the time.” (page 68) To a large degree, perception is a subject meeting an object or other being. The world you see is inextricably tied to who you are. You and your world are not two. It is not just the sensation by itself which determines how much pain or joy you experience, but how you interpret or perceive it.

 

So, when you perceive someone as threatening, or think your view of the world is the only correct view, you might consider whether you are looking at the vase or the faces.

 

 

*If you teach high school and want a resource for your students to read, or just want a deeper discussion of these issues for yourself, read: Letters To Vanessa: On Love, Science and Awareness in an Enchanted World, by Jeremy Hayward, physicist and Buddhist teacher. You might also read: The Butterfly’s Dream, by Zen teacher Albert Low.

Orienting Ourselves

Every morning when I wake up, I resurrect the world. I check the time, look out the window, remember my schedule. When at home, I especially check up on those I love. I look over to see if my wife is next to me. I look for each of my three cats and worry if one is missing. They have a cat window and go in and out at will. I think of my Dad and other family members. This is, of course, what caring and love entails. But love, especially when it leads to marriage or an ongoing relationship, is much more than the emotion of love. It is part of my identity. It is a way of saying ‘yes’ to the world. So every morning, to orient myself, I check on those I love.

 

If I don’t find one of our cats, I think of him or her as lost, missing. Lost is an awful place to be. It is a black hole in my consciousness that disorients me. Being lost, or not knowing what has happened, makes my day difficult. I try to fill in the hole with conjectures but can’t quite make any conjecture stick.

 

We create this disorientation or sense of something missing in many ways. It is one primary way we torment ourselves. I formulate a goal and create a sense of something missing until the goal is achieved. I see something I want and feel the lack of it until I get it. I have a discussion with someone and don’t say all that was in my heart to say, and feel what was unsaid as a missed opportunity or a lie. I have an idea of how my class will go; I have my lesson plan. But if it doesn’t go as I wanted it to or how I thought it should, I feel bad afterwards, or that I am just not as good a teacher as I should be. And then there are the ways other people/institutions treat me or I interpret how they treat me. These lacks are disorienting and knock us off-center.

 

It is easy to lose sight of how we each orient ourselves. A few years ago, I was on my first visit to Turkey. It was a tour, and we were in a new place every second or third day. I woke up one morning with a sense of panic. I didn’t know where I was. The smells were confusing, and the curtains opposite the bed were clearly not from my home. We think we wake up and are just there, wherever there is, and don’t realize what goes into being there, or here.

 

In Buddhism, this sense of lack is likened to thirst. When we’re thirsty we feel the pain of missing fluid and nutrients. Our body needs nourishing. But how do we think about our thirst or what story do we tell ourselves about how to fill or end it?

 

We often try to fill this lack and orient ourselves with beliefs, ideas, identities of all kinds, often stories and images of who we are as somehow separate from the rest of the world. A story can fit elements of the world into a narrative in order to make sense of it all. Space and time are how we lift the story of our self from the pages of memory, emotion and intellect into the three (plus) dimensional world we live. The world is whole and complete. But the story is never complete, and can’t be completed. Reality always far exceeds our ability to imagine, explain, or write about it. To expect any story to fully capture or complete us is doomed to fail, is doomed to add to our sense of thirst, confusion, or of something lacking in us and/or the world.

 

We might never be able to totally free ourselves from narrating our lives. But since this story making is near the heart of our world, when we slow down our thoughts and aren’t judgmental, we can be aware of what we do and how we do it. We can step out of any particular story of lack but not the reality of how stories are created. Zen teacher Albert Low said: “When we awaken, we do not awaken from the dream; we awaken to the dream.” We can realize ourselves as the story-maker, not just the story; or more accurately, as the act of creating, as well as the creation, a moment when the world speaks, not a separate self. When that happens, we are more clearly oriented and the story that is written is likely a good one, and a loving one.

The Story and the Reality

A big event occurs. You graduate from high school or college, you win the lottery, get married, and what do you expect next from your life? You imagine the joy of seeing the winning numbers going on forever. You imagine the ceremony, the parties, the honeymoon. But after the celebrating, what then? Do you imagine cleaning the house? Taking out the trash?

 

We expect the world would be changed or we would be changed. That the quality of our experience of life would be better, heightened, maybe. Or the quality of our mind would be different. And it is, but not like we expected. We are always changing. But we easily get caught up in the idea or the story we tell ourselves and miss the reality.

 

Daniel Kahneman described this as a “focusing illusion.” When we’re thinking about the wedding or the graduation, it is big, tremendous. When we’re in school, we might think that, when we graduate, life will be so different. Or we’re in love and imagine that, once the love is celebrated and wrapped in the marriage license, we will feel more secure and loved. But what we find is a new moment and a new day. We forget about adaptation, getting used to living with a spouse or getting used to the job or whatever it is we do after graduation.

 

We forget where feelings come from. We think the person we love creates the love. We think the achievement creates the thrill of success. We forget that to feel loved one must love. To be touched, one must touch. Jack Kornfield wrote a book called After The Ecstasy, The Laundry. We can even view enlightenment, whatever that is, in the same way. “Once I get enlightened, all will be different.” Or, “If only I’d get enlightened…”

 

All we ever have are moments. Hopefully, most of these will be spent with more clarity than confusion, more compassion than anger, more love than greed. When I first fell in love with Linda, the woman I eventually married, I wrote a poem in which I described her as “the apple-mad lady with a third eye.” We built a little cabin in an orchard and sold apples with friends and made apple cider. I saw her as almost a goddess. Guess what? Neither of us was either divine or, thank God, even an approximation of perfection. Our feet were very much made of clay, or skin and bones, and we made mistakes. Yet, luckily, we stayed together.

 

A marriage agreement* proclaims (I hope) that you will, henceforth, be real with each other. What first attracted you to the other person will eventually become an obstacle to really seeing the other for who she or he is. Once the illusion is over, some retreat; some mistake this as a signal to leave the relationship. But really, this is the moment of awakening. Now you are real, to see what was always there; now you see yourself and the other for what you both are, not for what you wanted from the other, not for your own projection. The other can be seen to exceed whatever you can think, explain or contain. As you affirm your commitment, you affirm not only the relationship, but you take yourself to a deeper level. The other is accepted and you are accepted, too. The same with a graduation ceremony, getting a new job, whatever.

 

As we let go of trying to contain reality or to protect ourselves with ideas, the richness of our life expands. We learn to trust ourselves to an unanticipated depth. The storytelling about our lives continues. But we recognize ourselves clearly as the storyteller, not the story.

 

 

*This is adapted from the text of an original marriage ceremony I performed and inspired by a Carl Jung analysis of the anima/animus archetypes.

 

Experiments with Awareness and Metacognition

Try these experiment with yourself and, if you’re a high school teacher, with your students. (I’m borrowing this from Zen teacher Albert Low with a touch of David Hume.) It might reveal and challenge accepted ideas and beliefs about metacognition and perception. Put your hand on the surface of a table. What does it feel like? Hard. Cool. A little sticky. Gross. How much of what you feel is the table? All of it? Half? Half the table, half you? Is the sensation of being “gross” from the table? Let me ask this another way. Does the feeling of grossness or stickiness belong to the table or the hand? Does the table “feel”? Maybe that seems like a crazy question. When you’re feeling the table surface as gross, what makes it gross? Is it the table? Are you mentally commenting on a memory of the table? Are you possibly feeling your own judgment or interpretation of a sensation?

 

With your hand still on the table, close your eyes. The table is obviously not the same as your hand. Nor is your hand the same as the sensation. But, does the sense of hand, table, smoothness all arise together or sequentially? When the hand touches the table, is all that you sense sensation? All you feel is feeling? Are you aware only of awareness?  Or even more precisely, cut out the you. There is just perception or awareness. If you are feeling your own interpretation, there would have to be a separation between the act of feeling and the object felt. Can feeling and felt ever be so separated?

 

Or what about other senses? Listen to a symphony. Where is the symphony? The instruments and musicians might be on the stage in the music hall.  The sound vibrations might fill the space. But the symphony? Or let’s re-phrase the famous question asked by the English philosopher Bishop Berkeley : “if a tree falls in the forest, is there a sound?” Without an ear (and a brain) is there a symphony? Or you see a beautiful sunset, with deep reds and vibrant yellows. Without an eye and a brain, where is the vibrant color? “Where does hearing end and sound begin?” Where does seeing end and color begin?

 

When we reflect, we think there is an ‘I’ who reflects. What does the ‘I’ reflect on? Another ‘I’? A memory or a concept of ‘I’? Some objective “fact”? But as we’ve possibly determined through our experiments, the “I” who sees and the “thing” seen are not separate. When we reflect, we reflect on our own perception or memory and then create a conclusion based on that memory. We’re reflecting not on some depersonalized truth but on a very personal creation. Are we the seen, the seer—or the seeing?

 

One more experiment. As you sit in a room reading this, sit back a little and just take in the whole space. You are at the center, yet all you are aware of, feel, sense is your surroundings. Just be aware of the whole room. Then, change your awareness to focus on one thing, maybe a word in this blog, a book, a table. Sense yourself at the periphery looking at the object of your gaze. This is another type of awareness. You can and constantly do shift easily from the center to the periphery and thus provide a necessary contrast. You need to be aware of the whole so the details can have a context and, thus, make sense. You need the details to construct the whole. Details and whole are interdependent.

 

But remember the first experiments. This word being read is not separate from the awareness reading. When you read a word, what is the nature of the awareness of the letters? The word comes to you as a whole. But the letters make up that whole. Albert Low argues you are aware not “of” the letters but “as” them. Can the letters have meaning without awareness-as them as letters? Pick up a pen and write a word. You can guide the pen to write a word because you have a non-focused awareness-as the weight, size, texture, and point of the pen. Or going back to the table; if you put your hand on the table to steady yourself as you stand up from your chair, you are aware-as the table. Or, even better, let’s say you turn on the music. You can be aware-of the music as you study and appreciate it. But as your feet start moving, are you aware-as the music as you dance?

 

What are the implications of these experiments in awareness? How can they help anyone? I find them fun. Each time I do them and try to describe what I find, I understand my own life and perceptions better. And possibly, if I understand awareness better at this very basic level, I can do a better job of recognizing and interrupting suffering as I notice it arising. I can better understand the role I play in the perceived world.