Reality as a Perception
How is our reality created? For a number of years now, I have been contemplating the notion of an objective reality vs. a subjective reality. Would a colorblind person be affected by a work of art differently from someone who had tetrachromacy? Do people with synesthesia perceive the world differently from the vast majority of us and as a result have a different internal experience of life itself? Everyone whom I've asked this question has replied with a resounding yes, but perhaps we take this yes for granted far too easily. The way that we perceive the world around us with our sensory apparatus affects our inner life as well as the relationships and reality around us.
I'll offer two, rather crude examples.
When I was in drama school, we were required to wear black every day of class. There was also a rather archaic system of punishment for people who flouted the rule, called the red-light system. Students who broke rules by being late for class, or in this case, not showing up in proper attire were barred from attending classes for the rest of the day. Multiple instances of this would result in a disciplinary action. Yes, by all means, please have a sip of water to help you swallow your disbelief.
On the first day, a classmate of mine showed up to school wearing a dark navy blue shirt. And it was when I pointed it out to him that I first found out he was colorblind, be able to only differentiate tones of color. He had actually gone and bought multiple shirts of the same color believing they were black. He got called out for this on our very first day and had to explain to every lecturer we had that he didn't know the shirt was not, in fact, black. He then went and got shirts that would be perceived as black by the masses. But on occasion, because he'd be in a rush to get to school, would put on a navy blue shirt by mistake. And he would come to school. Get kicked out of class. Spend all day in the library. Need another sip of water?
I then couldn't help but think about how this alternative perception of color affected the artistic work we would be doing. When we had to imagine colors in certain exercises, or visit art museums for inspiration. He was and still is, by all means, a brilliantly creative and perceptive individual, who managed to do the work fantastically well. But I still remain curious about his perception and reception of reality.
Then about 2 years ago I held a workshop in Japan. We guided our participants through some exercises and in one of them there was a moment where someone dropped a broom on the floor, I believe. During the feedback session, one of the female participants piped up and said something along the lines of "When the broom hit the floor, it made me think of a particular piece of music I like because it struck a D when it landed."
The other participant who was translating at the time froze mid-sentence and looked at her in bewilderment.
"I'm sorry, it struck a what?"
As it turned out, this participant was a classically-trained musician and had such a keen ear that she could tell distinguish the sounds of everyday objects, voices, even traffic noise and correlate them to classical music theory.
(Mind you, this was happening in Japanese, so I was sitting in limbo waiting for the resolution to this suspenseful moment. Our translator was also a classically trained musician, so the fact that this baffled her as well came as a second shock to me later.)
According to her, this was not so much a natural gift as much as it was a highly-trained skillset. Her training allowed her to perceive sound so deeply, with so much subtlety and she could use her knowledge and creativity to put those sounds into structures and compose music.
So, from an anatomical standpoint, how do we perceive?
Light passes through the cornea, with some it going through the pupil, the amount of which is mediated by the iris, focused by the lens to hit the retina where cells called photoreceptors convert light into electrical signals which are then carried through the optic nerve and into the brain.
Sound waves enter through the ear canal, where they vibrate the eardrum, sending the vibrations to three bones in the middle ear which get amplified and sent to the cochlea, in the inner ear. The fluid inside the cochlea ripples, forming a wave along the basilar membrane on which rests hair cells. As these cells rise and fall, stereocilia, hair-like projections on top of the hair cells, bump against an overlying structure and bend which cause pore-like channels at the tips of the stereocilia to open up, thereby causing chemicals to rush into the cell, creating an electrical signal. This signal is carried by the auditory nerve to the brain.
Microscopic molecules released by substances in our environment enter the nose and dissolve in mucus. Olfactory receptor neurons under the mucus in the olfactory epithelium detect the odor. These neurons transmit the information to the olfactory bulbs. On these bulbs, lie sensory receptors which are connected directly to the brain's limbic system and the neo-cortex.
Receptors embedded in the dermal and epidermal layers of the skin detect vibrations and fire off a resultant action potential (a term used to describe the electrical event which passes information from neuron to neuron). The action potential is passed through the nervous system, up the spinal cord and into the brain in a series of interconnected electrical events.
Taste buds containing sensory cells are found on the walls and grooves of the papillae. Chemical substances found in food, air, water changes specific proteins in the walls of the sensory cells. This causes the cell to transmit messenger substances, thus activating nerve cells. Specifically cranial nerves which transmit that information to the lower section of the brainstem, the medulla oblongata. They signal then splits, with some fibers carrying taste signals alongside other sensory perceptions such as pain, temperature or touch, bringing these to our consciousness. Other fibers carry signals over conscious perception and directly to pure sensory perception to secure our survival, such as smell signals.
All our sense organs are designed to transduce environmental stimuli into electrical signals which then pass through our nervous system and into the brain. It is there that they continue to fire through hardwired neural pathways which give rise to what we call meaning. Those neural pathways, as I have talked about in earlier posts, are hardwired to trigger other chemical responses in the body in relation to the stimulus from the environment. How we respond to these stimuli then form what others can perceive, and what we eventually come to learn and embody as our personality.
What does the way we perceive have to do with our personality?
Our perceptions directly influence the way we affect our reality. A perception engenders a reaction. Some base reactions we cannot actively control. For example, the eyes are naturally drawn to light, movement and social interaction. I.e., when we see light out of the corner of our eyes, we dart our eyes to glance at it. This is a natural response wired into our system to help us survive. We build up other reactions over time as a product of conditioning.
Someone who grew up with a history of child abuse for example *raises hand*, tightens his shoulders when spoken to in a raised voice. But it does not stop there. Tight shoulders can be fixed with a massage. The resultant firing of adrenaline, followed by the snapping of a verbal response, which was normalized by the household as a means of communication but then later deemed to be socially inappropriate requires much more time, therapy, meditation, and tea to overcome.
These habitual reactions over time form a pattern. Which we ourselves or the people around us can predict and anticipate thereby forming a personality. "I am/ He/she/they is/are a _________ person." This personality enacts itself on the world and creates a subjective reality in relation to the objective stimulus it receives. As we hardwire these responses, they start to dictate the environment around us. Now we are affecting reality with our personality. We see these in extreme cases, where an overly adversarial individual is able to pick a fight with just about anyone. If I approach a cat with the intention to threaten or harm, ready for a fight, the cat eventually gets conditioned to respond with equal aggression, if not more.
So coming back to the perception apparatus. When that stimulus is converted into a signal, this aptly named action potential holds a particular frequency. We can use the consciousness to alter the frequency of this current that flows from neuron to neuron. It is the very difference between catching someone's eye on the street again going "What're you looking at?" vs. smiling back. Now we create an external stimulus for the other. This person would respond rather differently to "What're you looking at?" as opposed to a smile.
Yes Ethan, but isn't this the same as "smile and the whole world smiles with you"?
I'm glad you asked, Imaginary Reader Who Exists Solely As A Sounding Board For My Editing Process In An Effort To Remain Coherent.
It is not, actually. Because the person might not smile back. They might attack you. They might shudder and run away at this positive energy. It depends on their own conditioning. Everyone is battling their own conditioning and their own habitual responses. But when someone throws a conditioned response your way, they would expect an equally habitual response from you, the receiver. By taking the moment to convert the stimulus into something else, it disrupts their programming as well. This monkey wrench is outside of the pattern they are used to running. So now they have to spend that time to rewire and create a new neural pathway to complete the track of "I just punched someone in the stomach and now he is hugging me."
Make no mistake, this is an act of revolution in and of itself.
But what does this have to do with the colorblind guy and the girl who hears music in a broom and the anatomy of the senses?
Well, in the next blog post, we'll look at how these come together. We have yet to introduce one of the fundamental building blocks of the personality: memory. And memory is what we will need to explore to uncover the connection between sensory perception and the personality as a tool to change reality.