People are constantly trying to understand, compare and explain the world around them – and the interactions with other individuals and social groups. The majority of the knowledge about perception originated from the introspective and observational approaches of classic philosophers, which later developed to a more scientific-mechanical perspective vastly supported by the advent of modern technologies. Perception has its roots in the human brain and nerve structures, but there is also a large component of the human perspective which is determined by cultural and social learning.
What determines our perception and what concern is it to our lives? In the following paragraphs, we’ll take a journey through perception, reality and the interesting underpinnings that define the so-called ‘human perspective.’
The Fundamentals of Perception
Sensation is merely the stimulation of sense organs. Perception is commonly defined as the process of creating meaningful patterns from the unprocessed sensory data, which involves the selection, organisation, and interpretation of that sensory stimulation. Sensation and perception are normally closely related and practically overlapping steps towards the final product of the human perspective: giving meaning to sensations. This area of study has been one of the oldest in experimental psychology, and it has puzzled mankind for centuries.
The commitment to understand the translation of plain stimuli into psychological processes generated the psychophysical approach – and one of the major influencers of this study field was German scientist Gustav Fechner. Fechner investigated the existence of perception thresholds for humans, which is, the minimum amount of stimuli required for perceptive processing (e.g. what minimum amount of light is required for a person to ‘see’ that there is light). His investigations showed that there is not an absolute threshold for such stimuli – human perception thresholds are moderated by various factors (e.g. intensity, focus of attention).
Signal-Detection Theory proposed that detection of stimuli involves decision processes and sensory processes, which are determined by various factors, including intensity of stimulus. Such proposition invokes the importance of expectations and personality traits in perception. The possible outcomes of this theory are the commonalities found in our daily lives – how many times have you thought you heard your phone ring, or thought you have seen someone, or used probability to make assumptions about a particular stimulus? Sometimes what we want to happen is what our primary reality becomes.
A Chaos of Bewildering Waves
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Einstein’s quotation reflects much of the conception of reality which is intrinsically related to our lives. We live in a chaos of bewildering waves (physical particles that compose our environment) which are given meaning by our cultural, social and emotional frameworks. Reality is vastly projected from our inner framework towards the outside world. We shape our interpretations based on previous experiences and learning paradigms, and many such interpretations become natural and responsive processes. This primarily explains why we have such diverse opinions, tastes, likes, motivational goals, and more. It also explains why there is such a difference in emotional responses from individuals: some people can be absolutely terrified to be on the top of a tree, while others are happily base-jumping from 200 meter-tall buildings (and even paying to do so).
Visual perception, which is one of the dominant forms of perception in humans, has proved to be highly ambiguous. The same image can result in radically different conclusions – and such ambiguity is largely due to the manner in which our brain processes images. Once a visual stimulus (light) is sensed, perception takes place almost instantly. Images recorded by the human eye (the retina) are transmitted to several parts of the brain, through varied pathways, and ultimately arriving at the occipital lobe (visual cortex). One of the interesting features of such chain of events is that visual data from both eyes are transmitted to both lobes: the right side of both eyes’ nerves transmits information to the right hemisphere, whilst the left side of both eyes’ nerves transmits it to the left hemisphere.
The ‘crossing-over’ process allows a higher level of interpretation of data and also ensures that the brain has substantial ‘material’ to work with. Throughout these stages, parallel processing and the high level of specialisation of visual cortex’s cells allow a multitude of interpretations and meaning-attachment to that stimuli captured by our eyes. It is a fast, multileveled and quite impressive process.
It is reasonable to understand the ambiguity of reality when analysing the processes that lead to the final product of our perception. Whether by default or through the human learning experience, people are aware that whilst we share many perceptive commonalities, there is also plenty of room for particular conceptions of the environment.
But what happens when our most basic perception tools are damaged or modified? Well, it can be quite a challenge when the already ‘biased’ manner in which we see the world is further magnified. Some medical conditions are examples of these reality-altering perspectives.
Achromatopsia (maskun) is a medical condition characterized by the inexistence or malformation of cone cells. These types of cells are present in the visual system and are responsible for detecting light. Because they are not prone to be primarily used during daylight, they become saturated and as a result individuals which suffer from the condition rely almost entirely on colours to identify patterns or objects. Balint’s Syndrome occurs when an individual is unable to accurately reach for objects (optic ataxia), voluntarily direct eye movement in order to focus on an object (optic apraxia) and perceive more than one object at a time (simultanagosia).
Agnosia is the inability to recognise objects, individuals, sounds, shapes, smells and several other stimuli. There are varied types of agnosia which directly affect one’s perception of the world – such as the inability to recognise faces (prosopagnosia), recognise text (agnostic alexia), perceive objects to the left or right side of the body (mirror agnosia), and identify objects through touch (astereognosia). Many patients who suffer from the previously cited conditions can be generally healthy, normal and functionally stable. It is literally a case of the brain playing mind tricks.
Consensual Reality and the Societal Treaty
With so many ambiguities and possible flaws in our perspective of reality, how do we really define reality? Many philosophers have asked the same question. Plato’s Myth of the Cave made reference to the ambiguity of reality, and some say it was the basis for the evolutionary movie The Matrix (1999). There are numerous theories which refer to terms such as multidimensional reality, hyper reality, surrealism, illusions and more. Even nowadays, reality is still a fuzzy concept – despite the expansion of technological research and the complexity of theoretical propositions. Social reality is probably the most reasonable explanation for all of this.
To create meaning in our lives, and live in a common and unified reality, we have to appeal to the collective subconscious. Most people find it hard to accept, or create barriers to understand the differences in cultural, social and personal upbringings: but they tend to live in harmony and, to say the least, forge a sense of unity. We may call this concept as the ‘societal treaty’.
Thousands of years ago, when humans began to develop common grounds for communication such as language, writing, reading – we began to develop our expression of reality. Science, philosophy and common sense all served to enhance and overlap that sense of unity, creating a backbone which would serve as a constant validation for the upcoming societies. By becoming social beings, we created a common reality which was intrinsically related to the environment around us, and at the same time, constantly verifiable through the other individuals in our social network. Social dynamics and the social environment have evolved to become a universal reality check. Is this for real? Some would argue that developing a standpoint towards perception is paradoxical by nature. What is your perspective?