The need to question and alter our perceptions

All of us without exception are driven by our perceptions while making our decisions and wrong perceptions therefore can have far reaching effects.

Let us first see what perception is. Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information to attain awareness. It requires both cognitive or thinking part and affective or the emotional part of the brain in addition to the various organs of the body to effectively interact and understand the external world. The other dimension of perception is that what someone perceives is a result of interplay between the perceiver, the situation, and the perceived. Hence, perception is not a passive reaction to events or circumstances but in fact, an active and pervasive process where the structure and function of the sense organs and nervous system play a vital part in making sense of the external world.

This is the reason why different people have differing perceptions of the same event or same environment. This becomes problematical as wrong perceptions which get entrenched as beliefs give raise to conflicts at many levels.  Nations fighting wars, couples fighting over who does more chores, children fighting over a toy are all results of entrenched beliefs. And these conflicts often occur in part because we think that we are right and that the other people, or nations with whom we are disagreeing are wrong. But the truth is that we both are interpreting the situation with our own biased perceptions. The other side has a different perception of how things are, but that does not mean they are wrong.

                                            -ANAIS NIN



Here is an example of how our interpretation of a situation could be so wrong.

While a woman was waiting for her plane at London Heathrow Airport, she purchased a package of English shortbread cookies. She had a hectic day and the busy schedule did not give her time to eat earlier. Making her way to a seating area, she carefully arranged her luggage and was getting settled when a man approached and indicated by pleasant gesture that he would like to occupy the seat next to her. She nodded and he sat down.

After a few moments, the woman decided to eat some of the cookies she had purchased, and she reached down to get them. As she opened the package, she noticed the man who sat next to her watching with great interest. She took the first cookie and began to eat when, to her great surprise, the man reached over, smiling, and took the second cookie.

The woman ate her cookie in stunned silence, astonished at the audacity of the man. After a moment she determinedly reached for the third cookie, but no sooner had she taken it out of the package than he, again smiling and without a word, reached over and took the fourth. Her indignation continued to rise as back and forth they went in total silence, she taking a cookie and he taking a cookie, until they reached the bottom of the package where the final cookie remained.

Without hesitation, the man reached over and took it, broke it in half, and cheerfully handed her one of the pieces. The woman took her half of the cookie with an icy glare. After finishing his half, the man stood, still smiling. With a polite bow, he turned and walked away.

The woman could not believe that any one could be so arrogant and rude. She was extremely flustered, her stomach churning. Making her way back to the airport gift shop, she picked up a package of antacid. As she opened her purse to get the money to pay for it, she stopped short.

There, in the bag was her unopened package of short bread cookies. Can you even begin to imagine the embarrassment, the chagrin, this woman felt when she discovered her mistake? Think of her attitude and behavior – inappropriate, rude, potentially destructive – especially compared to exemplary behavior exhibited by the stranger, and all stemming from one thing, the way she saw the situation.


                                                                             -FRANZISKA ISELI

As observers, it is easy for us to laugh at the situation. But if we are the participants in real-life situations in which our own attitudes and behaviors are the result of some unrecognized, incorrect, or incomplete thinking pattern, we may live with the pain, the frustration, the misjudgment, often never making it to that final scene where we discover that the basic assumptions causing the pain were wrong all along.

I believe that most of our interpersonal problems are primarily the result of wrong assumptions and interpretations of what we see and believe and this episode is a good illustration of this.

We need to appreciate that what we think that we are seeing around us, is actually made up by our minds and not necessarily what is actually out there. When we look at an object, our brain constructs a picture of what’s out there based on what it thinks is important for us.

Most people assume that what we see is pretty much what our eyes see and report to our brain. In reality, our brain adds very substantially to the report it gets from our eyes, so that, a lot of what we see is actually “made up” by the brain. Perhaps even more interestingly, the eye actually throws away much of the information it gets, leaving it to the rest of the brain to fill in additional information in its own ways.

A characteristic pattern of connections among neurons in the eyes, termed as “lateral inhibition network”, is responsible for throwing away information. Lateral inhibition helps to explain a number of “optical illusions” and, more importantly, provides an excellent example of how the brain is organized to actively “make sense” of the information it gets, rather than to simply absorb and respond to it. Without this filtering mechanism, with the amount of data that reaches our senses, we could literally become mad trying to respond to all of them.

That brings up an important theme in neuroscience: a central function of the unconscious is to construct a useful reality, and to fill in the blanks in the face of incomplete information. That applies not just to our perception of the physical world, but also to our social perception.

Just as our brains fill in the details of an image our eyes recordedwith partial informationso too our brains fill in details about people we don’t know that intimately. In filling in the unknown details about people, our unconscious mind employs parameters such as voice, looks, dress, body language, andat times wishful thinking. More unfortunately, ourprior beliefs based on ethnic stereotypesalso play a significant part in this reconstructionof the individual. And we normally accept these impressions as realwithout realizing the extent to which they are the guesses of our unconscious mind. We are also not aware of factors our unconscious mind employed to make those guesses or impressions.

Timothy Verstynen of Carnegie Mellon University says that as much as 90 percent of our perception is actually mental fabrication. According to him as we start walking about in the world, seeing, touching and hearing, our brain starts learning from theseexperiences and builds models to help us to interact rightly with people and the environment. He says”That’s a much more efficient way to get around in the world than to try to process every single bit of sensory data that your senses collect,”

The problem is that this fast and quick assessment by brain based on the past experiences may be faulty at times as illustrated by Alex Korb, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLAin the following narrative.

“I am driving down a sunny, tree-lined street in Santa Monica. As I make a left turn I notice a blind man standing on the corner with his seeing-eye dog. He wears dark sunglasses and carries a cane.

As I turn past him I see that what I thought was a cane is actually a pooper-scooper! It amazes me that a blind man is capable of cleaning up after his dog. I guess in absence of vision the brain develops a greater sensitivity to localizing smells. I chastise myself for assuming that blind people are more disabled than they actually are. Then I notice the dog is on a regular leash rather than a sturdier seeing-eye dog leash, and I can’t understand how that could possibly provide enough tactile guidance to the blind man. I figure he’s been blind a while and has the hang of it. As I drive away I glance in the rear-view mirror and see the blind man turn his head both ways before crossing the street. Finally, it dawns on me that the man is not actually blind, he is just a normally-sighted guy wearing sunglasses, carrying a pooper-scooper and taking his dog for a walk.

This misperception illustrates a key feature of the brain: it gets the gist of what’s going on and makes up the rest. To avoid the hard work of processing every detail about the world, the brain just captures a few key ones and fills in a whole perception. That filled in perception is what you actually experience, and it’s based largely on your past experiences. Every other time I had seen a guy with dark sunglasses, a dog, and what looked like a cane, he had been blind (though I wouldn’t really know if that’s true because I could have failed to catch a few mistaken perceptions). Therefore it becomes easier on the brain to just jump to that conclusion.”

IllusionIMAGE SOURCE: COURTESY (L) ; (R) © willustration –


In this illusion by Richard Russell, the same face appears to be female when the skin tone is made lighter (left image) and male when the skin tone is made darker (right image).The illusion works because changing the skin tone affects the face’s contrast – the difference between the darkest parts of the face (lips and eyes) and lightest parts (the skin).Few would regard facial contrast as a defining feature of either sex, but in fact, contrast is on average higher in females than males.


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