Sunday, October 5, 2008

Eye of the Beholder

I don't write about politics, so don't worry. I won't be expressing a political viewpoint or preference here, so it's safe to read on without fear of being offended or angered by what you read. I won't be writing about the debates, nor the candidates, nor even the issues. I'd like to write about perception.

Perception is completely individual. It has to do with sense and sensation, with attention and preference, and with our desire for order or our tolerance for different levels of chaos. Art, including photography and film making, has always experimented with the play of images and sounds to create particular perceptual effects. Increasingly, news outlets actively present images and information intended to shape our perceptions. A popular saying posits, "Perception is reality." But sometime, our perceptions can be demonstrably false.

(Please open this blog in another window, and click on the picture to view the animation.) Here's something fun to show you how perception can change. If your eyes follow the movement of the rotating pink dot, the dots remain one color, pink.

However, if you stare at the black "+" sign in the middle, the moving dot turns to green. Keep looking at the "+" sign. The pink dots gradually disappear, and you'll just see one green dot. Isn't the brain interesting? There is no green dot, and the pink ones don't disappear--all you have to do is blink, and they'll be back. This example illustrates how perception shifts. We don't always see what we think we see. (More fun optical illusions at

Do you remember the time before cable TV and the internet reigned supreme? There were basically four television stations: ABC, CBS, NBC, and later, PBS. Everyone watched the same programs and talked about them. In conversations, people would express different opinions about what they had seen, and you could learn a lot about the world from listening to different viewpoints. Can you imagine only four choices on television? Cable TV and the internet have given us virtually infinite choices in what to watch and what to read. It's possible to select your favorites, so that you get more and more of what you like, and what you agree with.

Unfortunately, what was intended to provide breadth, depth, and variety in information has actually limited us, our intelligence, and our decision-making. It's possible to choose news and entertainment preferences so that you never hear an opinion that conflicts with yours. You might never see or hear anything that challenges you to move beyond what you already know or believe to be true. There's a never-ending supply of brain-candy, causing the intellect to shut down so that curiosity dies, and you lose the ability to process anything that doesn't give you that feel-good jolt of total agreement. Never mind out-and-out conflict: just a differing viewpoint can come as a shock, or even a threat. You can find lots of ranting cable TV personalities and internet bloggers all along the ideological spectrum who parley honest differences of opinion and approach into self-aggrandizing, superiority-inflated name-calling and vitriolic judgment of those with whom they disagree. What up wid dat?

One of the most valuable things I have learned from my study and practice of the Feldenkrais Method is the ability to develop multiple approaches and perspectives to the problems I face in daily life. Each lesson begins with a scan of the body, which serves not so much as a "reality check," but as a status report on what is being perceived in the moment. In an atmosphere of non-judgment and safety, I can explore gentle movements that are familiar to me. I can begin with what is familiar and make minor adjustments, additions, deletions, expansions, and something that looks new begins to emerge. The novel and unfamiliar inspires my curiosity to explore further, and to choose whether to incorporate some of it because it's immediately useful, or come back and explore more for another time.

If a movement is uncomfortable, I can usually do it if I am more gentle, if I go more slowly, or if I just do a small version. I emerge from an "all or nothing" mentality and can actually implement actions that lead me in the direction I want to go. I can even do the same movement in a different position or orientation: we can often do some of the very same movements in different planes or positions. The same movement can activate different neural pathways, different sensation and perception. My original perceptions often change, and I am able to function at a higher level as a direct result of considering and experiencing different ways of doing the same thing. This approach to movement can translate into all areas of life that involve action, thought, and emotion, in addition to sensation.

Moshe Feldenkrais often said that high-functioning individuals have at least three different ways of doing anything. Only having one way means you repeat the same actions again and again, with no alternative. This is compulsive behavior. When you have two choices, you are equally limited, but in a mechanistic way. You're either doing "it," or you're not doing "it," and you are reduced to a binary system. As soon as a third option is available, you are more able to exercise your human potential to create and choose. Being able to choose between multiple options leads to higher quality decision-making and actions that result from them. You may still return to your original choice as the best option, but you will do so consciously and humanly instead of reactively, compulsively, or mechanically.

This election season has caused me to be more questioning of what I see, and hear, and read. How much of your decision-making is based on preference and habit? How much does perception cause you to react, rather than reflect? Perception is not Reality: but it is A reality. To perceive more, with awareness, can lead to a richer and more accurate reality for you and for those around you. Perception is in the eye, the brain, and the intentions of the beholder.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent commentary. So often I listen to the TV personalities who reinforce the way I think. However, when I am involved with others who have differing opinions (sometimes quite hostile), I become so tired, I can't find the rationale of my own position. After last week with the financial people telling us at every turn, we were heading toward gloom and doom, coupled with the politicos who continue to shout at each other, I decided one day just to shut off all outside communication and go on a media fast. It worked for my serenity until I turned the TV back on. Barbara