The Circle of Existence: Chapter 11 – Words, Concepts, Expectations

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bypeople-talking-441462_1280 DCH Park

“Miracles happen every day, change your perception of what a miracle is and you’ll see them all around you.”
– Jon Bon Jovi

“Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception.”

“Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.”
– Edward de Bono

There is a literary and dramatic trope called a perception filter. With a perception filter in place, you tend not to see whatever it is hiding. You avoid it. You don’t see it, either the thing being hidden or the filter itself. You don’t notice them. You just avoid them. The filter doesn’t confer true invisibility but you tend to not notice things that are hidden by it.

The fact is that such perception filters are in place all around us. Real perception filters do not require a technological implementation. All they require is an assumption, an expectation, on the part of the viewer and that viewer will assume that he has seen something that is not there or ignore something that is – all in accordance with his expectations. In other words, the viewer will tend to see what he expects to see, regardless of whether or not what he expects is part of the reality around him.

It sounds crazy but expectations control perception. That means that you can control perception. You just have to control expectations. This seems very powerful but also very silly, even unbelievable. Isn’t it obvious that you see whatever is there to be seen, regardless of expectations?

Actually, you don’t. One very dramatic example is in the notion that the world is flat. Another is in the attitude with which telescopic observations consistent with the Copernican theory of the Universe were greeted. More recent examples include the attitudes that protected small pox (the piercing of which led to development of the first small pox vaccine), the attitude that protected disease in general (the piercing of which led to stopping a plague and the practice of epidemiology), the so-called Ultraviolet Catastrophe (which led to the creation of quantum theory), and the characterization of the chemical nature of DNA.

In the last cited example, people the world over, including leading scientists, assumed that the chemical structure of DNA had to be protein based because up to that time, protein was the only type of molecule that was known to form complex structures. Every complex structure in nature seemed to be based on protein so it seemed reasonable that DNA, which conveys complex information from one generation to the next, would be based on protein.

However every chemical analysis of DNA failed to detect any protein. The chemical nature of DNA remained a mystery until Watson and Crick famously threw out the assumption that DNA had to be protein based. Once they did that, they were free to look at the data with open eyes. They were free of their expectations and consequently, free to receive and follow their observations and able to perceive the right conclusion.

If anything, assumptions and expectations are even more common in everyday life. Lest you assume that such filtering of perception might have been true in the past but is no longer true, please see the Attention Experiment (its website is called “the invisible gorilla”). The Attention Experiment demonstrates that this phenomenon is still active today. (Chabris, Christopher and Simons, Daniel, “the invisible gorilla”, www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/gorilla_experiment.html, accessed 17 JUL 14.

Please note that the mere fact that this is going on today does not necessarily mean that we must be this way. It does not imply a boundary or limitation. It illustrates what is going on so that we can be more aware. By being more aware of what is going on (one hopes) we can notice when we slip into unthinking default behavior and perceptions and instead, do something about it.)

Perceptions determine the shape of society. If we’re not careful, those assumptions and expectations can control everything. They can shape how we interact with each other. They can shape how we see and understand ourselves. They can determine whole economies. Arguably, they already do.

How can you free yourself of such control? How can you notice such assumptions and expectations so that you can deal with them and free yourself to determine your own fate? Creative scientists, artists, philosophers, and clerics have wrestled with this question down the ages. Economists and politicians have been motivated by the idea of understanding the people and forces at work to better inspire folks and provide for their needs, hopefully creating a happier society.

To be sure, this is not true of everyone. There are some who seem to be focused on making money and amassing power over others. Their attitude seems to be that things are the way they are and they can’t be changed. They therefore try to fit in to the system as they find it. They are concerned with playing the game better rather than trying to define a better game.

Whether they realize it or not, by acceding to the status quo, they are supporting the status quo. The extant system reflects the choices of everyone who is alive now. If enough of those choices fall in line with the status quo, it should be no surprise that the status quo does not change.

Such change begins with you. I have found that precision and clarity in the things that I say is an important first step toward changing what I say. I cannot heal what I do not see. By the same token, I cannot change what I do not notice. My aim is to become more aware of what I say. Toward this end, I have found that scientific thinking, observation, and honesty are useful, although these things are by no means unique to science. Indeed, I find that they are common to all human pursuits.

What filter or expectations do you have? What do you take for granted or see as “just the way things are?” How do those assumptions shape your experience of things?

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More of the book, The Circle of Existence can be found at www.smashwords.com.

© 2015, David Park. All Rights Reserved.

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