Perception Projector

"If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow."
Rachel Carson

A child awakens in the night and sees a monster in the room. In the morning, it becomes clear that the monster was a coat thrown carelessly over a chair. A hiker sees a bear, but at second glance, it is a gnarled stump.  A cyclist sees two pedestrians in raincoats, but as he rides closer, it turns out to be a barricade with yellow warning lights on top. A young woman runs away crying, because she felt that no one cared, but someone did. An older woman knows someone has been coming into her apartment and stealing her things, but her valuables lie forgotten deep in a drawer.

Such events show that interpretation comes early in the act of perception. We get a sense of something and toss up a hypothesis of what's going on, and then we confirm or disconfirm our suspicions. Our initial assumptions may be based on previous experience and upon our beliefs about what is likely. One may rarely see things that look like bears in the city, but on a lonely mountain trail, there they are. An ambiguous form in the night becomes a monster to a child, because monsters are where the danger is and children live in a world of ambiguity.  The young woman perceives misunderstanding and lack of care, because that is what she has felt before and has come to expect.

So often we perceive what we expect. We aren't dealing with reality. We are projecting our expectations upon it. We get what we expect to get. It seems that we are especially quick to project when danger is involved. Our brain's fear circuits are set up not to wait for all the information to come in, but to come up with a fabricated scenario that can guide our next action. If the cyclist sees a couple of pedestrians in the street, his muscles need to prepare to brake as soon as possible. Avoiding running into pedestrians is a high priority, naming the actual object in the path can come later. So the rider's mind may see pedestrians when there is limited and ambiguous sensory input. As more information comes in, the mind can revise its initial perception.

It is like the TV networks projecting a winner based upon partial election results. Most of the time they are right, but not always, and the act of projecting has the risk of influencing the election results. So does our act of projecting an idea onto our sense perceptions.

If we are overly sensitive to interpersonal danger, we come across as fearful and vulnerable. We may then be inviting predators into our lives. We sense rejection where there is none and eliminate the possibility of a supportive relationship forming. If we respond to our perceptions with defensive anger, we generate aversion in others and we get more of what we expect.
Recognize that while the universe is out there, we are each generating our perceptions of it, and we are creating responses to it with partial information. Be alert to those moments when you make a judgment before all the information is in, and notice when you make the shift to a more realistic view. In other words, be alert to when you are prejudging.

Recognize that we prejudge, make snap assessments, in the service of fear. Try to notice when you are doing that out of habit. Contemplate whether that habit serves you and whether you can temper it.

Always seek to be more mindful. Observe yourself in the act of perception. Slow down and notice your responses to your senses.

Seek to be less driven by fear and anger. Allow for more ambiguity with the expectation that sometimes what will be revealed will be wonderful.

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© 2008 Tom Barrett