Perception: Reality or an Unconscious Process?

We’ve all heard the phrase “perception is reality”, but is it really? What is reality, because it certainly isn’t concrete as reality is an individual experience. What is reality for one is not reality for another. The simple fact that two people can be in the same relationship and have two completely differing experiences is proof that reality is subjective. One person in the relationship could be happy and looking forward to growing old together, while the other is working on their exit plan. How could this be, and what causes this phenomenon? The truth is this mental process is far more complicated than I could ever begin to explain as I am not a neuroscientist.

What I do know is that our brain is constantly receiving stimuli more often than we realize. Everything in our environment is stimuli, from the temperature in the room to our favorite song, or least favorite song for that matter. Once the brain receives the stimuli, it then must organize and interpret it. This highly complicated process is what leads to our perceptions. So, what factors influence our interpretation? There are multiple factors, the culture we come from and live in, our values both individual and family, our beliefs, our concept of ourselves and the world. Lastly, our experiences greatly influence our perceptions. All of our previous experiences affect our judgement, and all stimuli we take in is filtered through these experiences. For example, let’s imagine that the stimuli is being stuck in traffic. Someone who has experienced negative consequences from being stuck in traffic, such as missing an important appointment will perceive traffic as a bad thing. While someone who doesn’t experience traffic as bad and can accept that this is a situation beyond their control, will perceive this as just a normal part of their day. The situation is neutral, the meaning we assign to it, makes it good or bad, and our past experiences largely influence what we determine as good or bad.

 “Songs are as sad as the listener.”

― Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I’m always amazed at how people share the same experience but have a completely different perception of it. Two people can eat the same meal, one will love it the other will hate it. Two people can watch the same movie, one can love it the other can hate it. So, if our perception is largely influenced by the way we think, and organize information then how do we change it? How do we learn to look at the world with a view beyond ourselves? In Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, there are three main factors: schemas, assimilation, and accommodation. A schema is basically the foundation on which our cognitive process is built, it’s how we organize and make sense of information. Once we have a solid foundation of information, when we receive new information, that information is either accommodated or assimilated into our existing schemas. Assimilation happens when we receive information that fits existing schemas, accommodation happens when we receive information that doesn’t fit existing schemas, and we must change our schema to add the new information. An example of this would be the schema we have for cauliflower. We know that cauliflower is a vegetable and most commonly we know cauliflower to be white. So, whenever we see white cauliflower it fits into our existing schema and is assimilated. However, there are some cauliflower that are yellow, green, and even purple. I don’t know about you, but I was shocked when I saw these colorful cauliflowers in the market. So, this meant I had to now add these colorful cauliflowers into my schema which is accommodation.

Accommodation allows us to adjust our thinking, while assimilation helps us to think the same which keeps our view of the world small. While our perception is our reality, our reality is not a fact, it is personal and subjective to us and only us. Just because you think something and perceive in a certain way, that doesn’t make it true. We do a disservice to ourselves and everyone around us, but not examining our thoughts and questioning why we think the way we do. Living in a world of social media post and 30 second sound bites, we all are judged and judging possibly more than we’d like to be. So, the next time you find yourself judging someone, (which we all do, albeit mostly unconsciously) I implore you to be introspective and ask yourself, “what past experience might be causing me to form this opinion?” Not only will this help you to become a more evolved version of yourself, it could, on a small level, brighten someone’s because they haven’t been misunderstood. Or on a large level it could possibly save someone’s life.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on perception and your experiences with it.

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