What We See Filtered Through Who We Are



I had a nice job my last six years in the Air Force. Among other things, I spent a lot of time teaching others how to teach. It required me to understand a few things about learning in much greater detail than I had ever understood them before. One of those things was a term called "perception."

The best way I can explain perception to you is the way I explained it to my classes, which were made up of officers and NCO's who for one reason or other had to learn the basics of teaching. I used to hold a desk stapler behind my back and click out a few staples. I then would ask the students what they had heard. Since the very sound of a stapler is easy to identify, the answer was always immediate and correct: "A stapler."

"Actually," I would explain, "all you heard was a sound.

"That sound traveled into your ears, down a nerve and into your brain. In your brain it was compared to everything you've ever heard until a matching sound was found. Then your brain put together what you had heard, and what you remembered, and you perceived a stapler being used."

The same thing, I explained, applied to sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. We then went into the more common meaning of perception, which covers how we feel about what our senses gather in. The point was, of course, that when my students went out to teach, they were going to find that their students' learning was going to be strongly affected by their perceptions of what was being taught.

Perception affects everything we think and do. It is so pervasive that the way we see things is affected as much by who we are as it is by what we're seeing.

Consider this documented case: A young man in his thirties had a car accident. His brain was damaged. Fortunately, he recovered and returned back to normal except for one major flaw in his thought processes. The part of his brain that handles emotional responses was damaged.

Result? He did not recognize his own mother and father.

"Oh," he would say. "These two people look and sound exactly like my mother and father, but they aren't my mother and father."

Even when he was assured that they were his parents, he was unable to accept them as such. His brain was no longer able to examine what his senses were taking in and compare it to the way he had felt about that same thing in the past. Without that comparison, he was unable to recognize anything that involved an emotional response. In other words, if he didn't feel the same way about someone, he refused to believe that the person was who he or she actually was.

Think about that. We're all built the same way as that young man. We respond to things, not just in an objective way, but also in an emotional way, even when we are totally unaware of it. What we see is not just what's there, but what's there as it is colored by our past. What we see is who we are.

The human brain is a wonderful and mysterious thing. It is constantly interpreting the world around it, using memories to modify the way we perceive external sights and sounds. Even your own body affects the way you feel about something.

Try this: Smile. Come on, a big one. See? The simple act of smiling makes you feel good, even though there is no particular reason to feel good.

Your brain interprets the fact that you are smiling as evidence that you are experiencing something pleasant, and it pumps substances into your bloodstream that make you feel good.

Amazing, isn't it? If you smile as you see or hear something you will find that your response to that something is much more positive. Frowning does the opposite. Try it, if you are in the mood to feel upset.

So what? Well, if smiling can affect how much you enjoy life, it certainly couldn't hurt to smile a bit more, could it?

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