Nothing exists without us perceiving it. Our perception allows us to categorize anything imaginable as factual, conceptual, impossible, and so on. But what can be said about perception itself?
I have bad eyes. Around the age of 13 I realized it was hard for me to see what my teacher wrote on the blackboard. Anything more than a few feet away looked…fuzzy. It wasn’t long before I realized my vision wasn’t right, but I didn’t want to get glasses. I think it had something to do with not wanting to look like a nerd. In any case, a short trip to the eye doctor confirmed it: I had poor eyesight. Not terrible, but still pretty bad.
I’ll never forget the first time I tried on my pair of glasses. To anyone else who has had their vision corrected, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Nearly ten years later I still distinctly remember putting on the glasses, looking outside the office windows, and seeing, well, everything.
More recently I noticed my glasses would cause me to see things a bit blurry. I took a trip to the eye doctor and found out my prescription was a bit off. After getting my new prescription figured out, I ordered a new pair of glasses and waited for them to be made.
Before trying on the new pair, my doctor warned me that for a while it might seem like I was “looking through a fish bowl”. And wow, he wasn’t joking. Although I could see clearly, these new glasses were a totally new, and weird, experience. It was, as my doctor warned me, like viewing everything through a fish bowl.
This change in visual perception threw my whole body out of whack. Pop cans looked, and even felt, smaller. Driving was hard. It was as if my entire sense of depth was gone, and I had to rebuild it from scratch. When I got home and hopped onto my laptop, the screen looked like an old tube television set. Straight lines in the world didn’t look straight, and this confused my brain.
After a few days of wearing them, however, something crazy happened. Things started to look normal again. Straight lines were straight. I could walk without constantly feeling like I was about to trip myself. My brain had adjusted itself to fit the new visual information it was receiving. Crazy.
Cool story, but what about perception itself?
I share this story about my vision for two reasons:
- Vision is an experience
- Vision both influences and is influenced by our perception
The first point is pretty clear. Packets of light hit our retinas, which in turn cause jolts of electricity to stimulate parts of our brains and produce a visceral experience within our minds. (Whatever that is). We call this vision. The second point is a little more complicated, and it’s what I’ll be talking about for the rest of this article.
Perception is reality
Ontological complexities aside, there is something to be said about the immediacy of our experiences through our senses. Sure, we might be a brain in a vat or hooked up to The Matrix, but at some level there is an interaction which causes us to experience the information coming from those sensory inputs. This level we call reality.
In our own little worlds
We all have the capacity for experience. If we didn’t, we’d be zombies. However, if there is an objective reality beyond what we comprehend in our minds, then it is quite likely that it is different from what we commonly attribute to reality. Our senses aren’t perfect; We make mistakes. All you need to do is a quick search for optical illusions to see just how easily our senses can be fooled.
In my story about getting new glasses, the world appeared warped for a few days. Everything was objectively the same as it was to everyone else around me, but my perception of the world was quite different from theirs. To me, reality was a distorted mess. But, if I were the only being alive to experience it, reality would be defined according to these messed up perceptions. And to go one step further: This messed up reality would be considered normal if it was the only way I knew how to perceive my experiences.
What we consider normal is just a summation of repeated experiences which tend towards a particular outcome. Bananas are yellow. If you jump you’ll fall down. People make noises that correspond to thoughts and ideas. Even when talking about perception, we rely on past experiences to try and decipher what is being meant. All sorts of assumptions about how the world works must be held just to be able to understand this sentence.
Our perception is the knot which binds together a string of experiences into a coherent picture of reality. And like knots, our mode of perception is anything but similar when considering the vast number of human beings capable of experience. It influences our actions, but also affects how we experience reality.
With all of that in mind, it should be extremely important to recognize that our perception of the world around us might not correspond to the reality that everyone else experiences. By doing this we will be better off because our perception will include the notion that it is not infallible, and it is only through working together with others that we can better understand what is real.