“We don’t see reality as it is. We see it as WE ARE.”

I found a similar quote attributed to the great writer Anais Nin on ThinkExist.com. According to Wikipedia, she passed away in January 1977. The message is probably somewhat shocking to people who are essentially “left brained,” or rational in their thinking.

Of course as a materials engineer, I am not going to claim (and don’t think) that there is no reality. There is a reality out there. What the quote is getting at is the essential truth that we have only our minds and our senses to figure out what that reality is. Even our most basic senses, such as vision (even if we have 20:20 eyesight), do not convey an exact copy of the appearance of the “real world.” Our brains and nervous systems do a lot of pre-processing on the data before we can see an image. This works the same way for all humans with relatively normal vision. This leads to the foundation of a “consensual reality.” Scientists and engineers, and generally most of us, acknowledge (consciously or not) some sort of physical reality with which we interact in our daily lives.

This subconscious processing doesn’t just happen with simple direct sensory input either. It is continuously happening at every level of our sensory and mental activities. The two interact to a much stronger degree than most of us are aware. To a large degree, our ability to notice things and to perceive the outer world is a function of what we have experienced in the past, how we experienced it and what we think the context is at the relevant moment. When we disagree with someone, it’s often these types of differences that are at work.

But to an even larger degree, our ability to see, notice and perceive is determined by our genetic blueprint. Scientists working in many fields have identified many errors that all of us make at least some of the time. It’s part of the human condition. See Manly P. Hall’s introduction to Francis Bacon’s succinct description of these basic human failings of perception at http://www.sirbacon.org/links/4idols.htm. Bacon died in 1626, so we humans have had plenty of time to work with his instructions to see around these traps in our genetic blueprint more clearly!

Let’s look at an example of how perception is influenced by context. Say there’s a cup on my desk. Now, if someone walks in the room and I ask the person “What’s on my desk?” the answer is unlikely to be “a cup.” It’s not that the cup is hidden away. It’s in plain view. But there is a lot of other stuff on my desk too. A computer, a monitor (probably the most noticeable thing, aside from the general clutter), a scanner, a ceramic shot glass, an unmatched pair of gloves, two rolls of tape in a dispenser, etc.

If we focus the question and ask “Is there a cup on my desk?” maybe the answer is a reasonably quick "yes." On the other hand, the fact is that there’s also a pretty fancy ceramic shot glass on my desk. It’s kind of cup-shaped. If the person thinks we’re playing some kind of logic game, maybe the answer is “no” because there are really TWO cups on my desk: the real cup and the shot-glass-type cup.

More next week!