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Seeing Things Differently

In my little blog essays I have often talked about world-views. My rusted-on readers would know by now that a “world-view” is essentially a filter through which we view the world. Anais Nin’s famous quote, “We don’t see things they way they are; we see things the way we are,” alludes to this truth.

The world (whatever that is) assails us with multiple sensory inputs. Human beings with a finite ability to take in such information are selective in what they allow into consciousness.

It is easy to see how our physical limitations constrain what information we absorb. Our sensory stimuli are essentially limited. We have a limited ability to see, for example. Our sensory capacity is limited to the visual spectrum of light. We don’t see infra-red or ultra-violet. Some organisms have such capacity, but humans do not. We can’t detect the high frequency auditory signals that dogs and bats can access. We are oblivious to the earth’s magnetic field that seems to aid the navigation of migrating birds.

And just as sensory acuity varies between species, it also varies between individuals of the human species. Some of us (the sensates) are aware of more sensory inputs than others (the intuitives). Some of us are colour blind. Some are more sensitive to sound. Others are more sensitive to temperature differences. And so on.

I think it was Aldous Huxley who said that the human mind was a reducing mechanism, which filtered our sensory data to a degree that was manageable. If we were able to perceive every possible sensory input then our minds would be indeed be overwhelmed and our ability to make decisions would be consequently diminished or even eliminated. Thus it is that evolution has equipped us to notice those things in our external world that have the greatest impact on our survival.

It is not surprising therefore that although many animals can see or hear better than us, one of the traits of human beings is that we are very good at detecting movement. The detection of movement is helpful in protecting ourselves against predators and in locating prey.

Huxley was right that our survival depends on being able to discern important environmental signals and dispensing with those of lesser value. It is the Pareto effect all over again. The inputs that have most of the impact on our ability to survive comprise only a small sub-set of those that are available. It is a sensible evolutionary adaptation that these are what we are most sensitive to and therefore gain our attention.

How would our picture of the world be modified if we had access to more of these sensory inputs? It is almost impossible to imagine. The only thing we can say with certainty is that it would certainly be different.

But there are other major influences on our world views other than our physical perceptions. There are other filters that we have constructed that constrain and sometimes distort our limited picture of our world. These filters are not physical but psychological.

As I have discussed in previous essays, it seems to be our consciousness that distinguishes humankind from other animals. Not only are we aware, but we are aware of our awareness. We think and are aware of our thoughts. We are conscious of many of the processes of mind. We are constantly occupied by this “theatre of mind”.

Because our consciousness enables us to be aware of our thoughts, we become to believe that there are really two ‘worlds’ that we live in. Not only is there the external world that we detect through our senses, but there is also a very ‘real’ but very private internal existence. We are also aware that, although they obviously do ‘commerce’ with each other, there is not a ‘one-to-one’ relationship between these two worlds; and that there seems to be some factor that influences how the subjective inner world relates to the objective outer world. It doesn’t take much thought to begin to see that the prime definer of our psychological (and indeed our spiritual) well-being must be in terms of the quality of our subjective internal existence and as the wisdom traditons of the world attest, this subjective experience is not directly related to the conditions of our external world. But I digress.

It should be obvious then that our experience of the physical world is a construct of our minds. It builds on the sensory inputs we mentioned above. However it does not deal with this information democratically, as though each piece of information has equal significance. Our minds are both selective in the information they take in and also on the weighting they give such information. As usual it is important to remember that “the map is not the territory!”

Let my remind you of Thomas S Kuhn and his seminal work “On the Nature of Scientific Revolutions”. Kuhn showed how even respected scientists unconsciously apply bias to their observations. Kuhn maintained that scientists had a hypothesis about how the world worked (to describe this he coined the word “paradigm”) and by and large they gave more emphasis to the data that supported their “paradigm” and largely discounted data that didn’t.

[It is interesting that Charles Darwin in one of his journals wrote something to the effect that “when I am in the field trying to find evidence in support of a hypothesis and I find contrary evidence I quickly write it down because I know from experience that this is what I am most likely to forget.” So, Darwin was aware that his mind was (unconsciously) trying to support the hypothesis.]

It is not difficult to find examples of people whose construct of the world is demonstrably incorrect. Those with mental illness often fall into this category.

Let me however, give you another, and more physical example

What we are confronting here is a human being who has internalised a picture of the world and who never begins to understand that the map (ensconced in the mind of the individual) is merely a representation, and not (however much we would prefer to think otherwise) a direct reflection of the real world. This was exemplified by the experience of the eminent Indian neurosurgeon, Villayanur S Ramachandran, when he gave the Reith lecture in 2003. He related the story of a patient who had his left arm amputated above the elbow. However, when the doctor probed his body he found that touching the left side of his face produced a sensation in the “phantom” limb of his left arm. Indeed he was able to establish that for sensory response, the “remembered” feelings of the lost limb were stimulated by probing the left side of his face. The hypothesis is that when the sensory transmitters of the left arm could no longer take sensory inputs to the right brain, the brain region that had responded to such stimuli looked close by for accommodating stimulus. The feeling response of the body is mapped onto an appropriate part of the neo-cortex. Each spot on the surface of the human skin has a corresponding sensory responsive area in the human brain. Strangely, although the surface of the human body is mapped onto the respective brain area, deprivation of sensory stimuli has caused the designated brain area to look elsewhere for stimulus. The brain area that relates to the arm is immediately adjacent to that which relates to the face. The tactile responses that were denied by the amputation of the arm sought interaction from the nearest part of the brain. Consequently the brain centre that normally looked after the arm, in seeking to gain the satisfaction of neurological response attached its sensory response to adjacent brain area that responded to tactile stimulation from the face. The sensory areas devoted to looking after these two parts of the body are in fact located in adjoining parts of the brain. It was related that the spilling of water onto the left side of the face initiated a response in the patient that was equivalent to experiencing the impact on his left arm. Different parts of the face could elicit responses from the phantom thumb of the victim or his various phantom fingers.

This condition merely serves to reinforce the notion that our perception of the world is not direct or homogenous. Indeed, we all have different worldviews. Here we had a person whose tactile experience in his brain was not congruent with his physical condition. As we have emphasised previously, the paradigm through which we view the world directly mediates our experience of the world. We only experience the world through an internal map of the world, and we must always be mindful as I asserted above that “the map is not the territory.” This example shows how the brain is accommodating to changing circumstances and normally tries to interpret the world through its basic paradigms, seeking to resolve dissonance by whatever methods are available.

That we all see the world differently is reinforced more and more by our experience. Take for example a friend who took his two boys to an amusement park. On the roller coaster ride one was terrified, the other exhilarated. Is this not a manifestation of different world views? What was exciting and stimulating to one was frightening to the other. Yet the physical environment and the physical experience was the same. However we wish to explain the different responses, one child was viewing the experience as threatening, the other as desirable.

How we are socialised obviously has an effect on how we view the world. As a result, our cultural upbringings make a considerable difference on our world construct.

An example of how cultural impacts modify our perception of reality is exemplified by a radio interview that I heard some years ago. The interview involved a lady from a city environment being guided around the Australian outback by a lady indigenous origins. They arrived at a vantage point overlooking a large tract of a typical outback landscape. The lady from the city began to describe the vista in front of her. “We are on top of a sand ridge, looking down on a dried up lake bed. In front of us is a thicket of native plants, mainly Melaleucas. Beyond that there is a flat area, largely devoid of vegetation leading down towards the dry lake bed.” The indigenous lady was then asked what she saw. She responded, “I see native food and medicine.” Obviously pointing, she said, “There is a place we can dig for yams. Over to the right is a shrub which has berries which are good to eat. They will be in season in a month or so. That tree there has leaves we chew to help when we have a belly-ache.”

Two women viewing the same landscape largely saw different things due to their different cultures and culturisation.

Those of you that have read my essays over the last few years would know that in the end the most important differentiator between world views is how you choose to see your fellow humans.

Do you view them as competitors, resources to be used, and potential threats? That is the world-view of fear.

Or do you view them as fellow journeyers in this mortal passage that suffer just as you do? Do you realise that their sufferings are your own? Do you understand that in essence you and all humanity are one? This is the world-view of love.

I don’t expect that you will embrace these ideals. And in your defence in this essay I haven’t given you cogent arguments to make this shift. However I would ask you to look objectively at the evidence about how we as human-beings choose (albeit unwittingly) to see the world differently. Even if I can’t convince you to see the world through a filter of love rather than through a filter of fear, I would be content that you might understand that others don’t see the world the way you do through no fault of their own. All I ask is that you might show some tolerance as a result of those whose artificial construct of the world is different to your artificial construct of the world and know with a little humility that if you had shared their biological history and their circumstances you would likely have agreed with them, even though now you might find their views strange, threatening or abhorrent.

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  1. 3 Comment(s)

  2.   By Jack on May 12, 2012 | Reply

    Very good Ted……evolutionists vs creationists, Christians vs Muslims etc…….all the very best for Mothers Day to all your readers’ Mothers!

  3.   By Greg Brown on May 14, 2012 | Reply

    I think it was Kant who said that time and space are merely the pincers with which we examine the universe and they leave their mark upon it. So if he is right even the basic things we take for granted are potentially just the maps and not the terrain itself. We certainly need to use these maps to function but the question still remains, what is the true nature of the Universe and what are we in relation to it?

  4.   By Lanfranco Sal on May 22, 2012 | Reply

    Many thanks for writing valuable post regarding the subject. I am a fan of your site. Maintain the great work.

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