Human vision is surprisingly subjective. Anyone who has ever sat in front of a phoropter (that’s the machine with all the little lenses an optometrist uses) has experienced this. In my most recent appointment the doctor showed me two different lenses I took turns looking through with my right and my left eye: When I looked through my left eye in lens #1, the letter she had me looking at seemed farther away than the same lens in my other eye. But when I looked through that lens with both eyes, that extra distance was gone.
Not to get too much into stereoscopic vision, but basically, that’s a phenomenon called the parallax effect, where one eye’s recording of information is privileged over the other. Sort of like being right-handed, your body prefers to rely more heavily on one eye for determining things like distance and detail. In day to day life, that might not be a huge deal.
But when it really matters, say if you’re hunting or shooting a bow. That slight discrepancy between one eye and the other can be disastrous. What we see, the reality that we assume is always 100% accurate all around us; is actually largely just our perception. This is true in all aspects of perception, not just our literal eyesight.
“Two people could be walking in the same shoe and at the same time hear the same news. One’s laughing and the other one’s crying One is living and the other one’s dying. So tell me now which ones are you? Cause in the end, it’s up to you Cause the fact is that’s there’s only one truth And the only difference is a point of view.”
You can find this idea in art all across the spectrum, but blues singer & guitar player Jonny Lang puts it exceptionally well in the song I just referenced. The chorus utilizes a classic method of narrative structure in songwriting. Jonny sings the first line and a couple of background vocals follow him, singing the second half, creating a back and forth that feels like a conversation:
Jonny: If you’re looking for fear
BGV: You’re gonna’ find it
Jonny: If you’re looking for trouble
BGV: You’re gonna’ find it
Jonny: If you’re looking for love
BGV: You’re gonna’ find it
All: You’re gonna’ finally find what you’re looking for
The premise here is that the thing that you look for, what you perceive to be true, is the thing that you’re going to find. This isn’t an esoteric notion in art, science has been regularly uncovering the frailty of human perception for years:
- Recently, for example, there has been evidence uncovered that suggests that there may be more than one reality.
- There’s a fascinating and down-to-earth explanation of how multiple universes could (and probably do) exist.
- Not only that but an experiment covered in Nature suggests that time can flow backward.
- Researchers have found that knowingly taking a placebo instead of a real pain medication still reduces pain, sometimes by up to 30%.
- If you still aren’t buying that human perception isn’t an accurate print out of reality as it is, watch this video on special relativity to see how our notions of time and space are far less simple than think they are.
View of reality is correct
Now, this doesn’t mean that everything we perceive is untrue, that it is all meaningless. What it does mean is that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that our assumption that our view of reality is correct isn’t something we can be so sure of. In our conscious mind, we can know we are taking sugar pills, a placebo, instead of real pain medication. And yet something somewhere in our brains believes that this is actually the medicine that will help us be healthy and strong, and the data shows that our subconscious belief in that point is likely to reduce our pain.
What we believe—our perception—shapes our reality.
This doesn’t mean our perception completely shapes our reality. It is one factor, a powerful and often overlooked factor, but it is just one of many. Still, harnessing this part of our minds can give us a tremendous amount of control over our well being.
“If we make the following small adjustment in the belief that we create our own reality, we come closer to the truth: we often participate in creating our reality. This view recognizes that often we’re not helpless victims. Unseemly things happen, but we often have more choice than we realize how we deal with what happens to us, including our attitude about it.” – Do We Create Our Own Reality?
Due to the effects of the hedonic treadmill , humans have a tendency to balance our psychologically in the face of extremely positive or negative experiences. Think about the wealthiest person you know, if you asked them if they were rich what would they say? Chances are they would say they’re “well off” or something similar, but they’d clarify that they aren’t rich. Maybe they’d point to someone they know who has this or that thing which is the real sign of wealth if you ask them.
Studies have shown that wealth and happiness don’t increase in tandem, a certain amount of wealth increase does increase happiness but that tapers off after a while. “Researchers have found that above a certain point more money does not yield much more happiness. As Donnelly and Norton wrote, “The relationship between money and happiness has been studied for decades, and typically shows that money matters for well-being, but with diminishing returns: the difference in happiness between people with incomes of $50,000 and $75,000 is larger, for example, than between people with incomes of $75,000 and $100,000.”
What’s more, if you were to travel to a third-world country you would likely come back shocked at the happiness of the people you encountered. In the face of immense poverty, hardship, and desolation human beings living in those environments regularly show remarkable resilience. People can live in environments others would find completely untenable, and laugh and enjoy their days while doing so. Plenty of people with immense wealth are just as depressed as their middle-class counterparts, how can this be?
We don’t come to this value judgments about how much money is enough, what constitutes a bad life and a bad house, we learn them from what’s around us. “Your perceptions stem from the perceptions of others. The perceptions that you hold today were molded and shaped by your parents, siblings, friends, spouse, school, the media, governments, institutions and a LONG LIST of others.”
Is it hot or is it cold? If you live in Minnesota and it is 40 degrees outside it’s wonderfully nice/warm if it’s February. If you are in Atlanta, Georgia, there is a decent chance schools might get closed. People in Georgia will have jackets and hats on. While people in Minnesota send their kids out to play wearing long sleeve shirts. How is this possible? Our perceptions about reality (what temperature is hot or cold) shape how our brains interpret sensory information and cause us to feel hot or cold depending on how we perceive it.
Now I’m not exactly putting a tin-foil hat on but…
Some of this perception creation is done institutionally by our government. Politics and laws shape the values and expectations of a people (their perception of what is normal), and that enables them to be more easily controlled. That sentence might sound like I’m going to sell you my doomsday bunker designs, but don’t worry I’m not. This is a natural part of human society, we do it with our kids all the time. But instead of taxes or whatever other ends a politician or government might have, with our kids we try to establish a “normal-reality” that benefits us (and them) in the long run. It is normal that everyone takes part in the doing of chores, it is normal that parents tell kids what to do, etc., that structure can be healthy (and it can be destructive), but it is sort of just how it is.
Just like a kid who goes off to college and realizes that violent video games don’t actually make one violent. Or that Harry Potter is an enjoyable movie franchise rather than a ploy by the devil to steal one’s soul. Once we recognize the perceptions we have that are false, removing them can greatly increase our happiness.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that is made by someone that, by the consequential actions following said prediction, then comes true. This idea is a large part of why the idea that perception is reality is so effective. “The self-fulfilling prophecy lays at the foundation of this concept; a statement that alters actions and therefore becomes true. Someone who thinks their night is going to play out terribly will subconsciously change their actions so that this prediction is fulfilled by their actions. Often the way we perceive reality is colored by how we want it rather than simply the way it is.” – Ashley Fern
If you step into a situation with a certain idea about how it will play out; chances are if you have the primary variables in your hands you will cause them to play out that way. If you think that your upcoming date is with your soulmate. Then you’re more likely to pull out all the stops and therefore are more likely to woo them. Your excitement about the date increases your interest in that person. Which increases their dopamine response when they see how much you are interested in them.
The variables are almost always in your hands
There are very few situations where you don’t have the power to alter how things turn out. That might seem unlikely, but if you recognize the subtle power of walking into a situation with correct intentions and knowing, not hoping, how things will end, you’re far more likely to succeed.
Regan Hiller outlines a really effective framework for changing our perceptions and recognizing how our environment is a reaction to our previous choices and what we’ve chosen to tolerate:
“Here’s the thing — and it might be uncomfortable for some people — whatever is going on in your life and finances is not real; rather, what’s going on is a reaction to all the past beliefs of what you’ve tolerated.”
The points he outlined for how to engage in this new perception are as follows, though I don’t discuss all of them. You can read the rest here.
Make a decision
We have to choose the thing that we want, that we actually truly want. What is your vision for your life?
“If you had everything you ever wanted, with no limits, what would that look like to you, how would it feel, what would you be doing? This might be a totally new concept to people so just know that it’s okay to dream and have permission to have what you want.”
This is a difficult point, we have to recognize that the barriers that we think are in place from getting what we’re after are often not really there unless we place them there.
“But we all have the choice to consciously change and break through these old cycles and systems that no longer serve us (but are there to keep us safe).”
Face your limits
This point in his list is essentially what we’ve been talking about. If our perception is our reality, if what we think is true and what we think will happen changes our external circumstances, what things are we believing that are holding us back?
“Internal limits include fear, self-sabotage, negative self-talk, and a lack of self-belief. Do any of these sound familiar?”
If these other points seem really nebulous to you here’s a practical one. Journaling is incredibly important in order to document the process of growth you’re going through, it also allows us to look back on where we were and see how far we’ve come.
“Write out your limiting beliefs. Then, against each one, write how they are serving you in your life. Then, on another page, write a set of new beliefs.”
If you want to be America’s next great novelist, you should be taking steps towards that goal every single day. For a novelist that means writing daily, even when it feels like a chore. For a dancer, that means rehearsing harder and longer than everyone else. We have to find a way to make our goals into our daily practice and the focus of our attention
“If you don’t get into a daily routine of doing both the inner mindset and outer work required to move you toward your ultimate reality, then don’t expect it to show up anytime soon.”
This might seem counterintuitive since most of what we’ve talked about so far has been all about self-understanding and self-work, but we as humans benefit immensely from collaboration and accountability. Other people can hold up a mirror for us so that we can see the limits we’ve set on ourselves and the ways we’re being held back.
You might be thinking that this all sounds like imaginative nonsense. That these patterns of thinking are just ideas, words. Of course, they are! But ideas and words, our perceptions of the world, have already shaped us so much in getting to this point. Why wouldn’t they continue to do so?