Up to this point in time, we have acknowledged how it is that both the corporate and the individual concept of mind rely heavily on memory and language. It is this that makes communication with the self and with others about us possible, although only partially so. To form attitudes, opinions, beliefs, stereotypes etc. (which are the very stuff of human activity, aspiration and achievement) we need to acknowledge and understand something of the reasons as to how and why we develop our capacity to ponder, to select and to choose, which moves us forward to a brief but, hopefully, informative and enlightening discussion regarding “perception”.
The subject of human perception is almost “as old as the hills” and is truly volumous in terms of the overall treatment it has received. On the one hand, such interest is hardly surprising since at any given moment of our waking life, our sense organs are being bombarded with stimuli from almost every sensory direction, some of which will be acknowledged and will therefore stick, whilst other elements of it are allowed to fade or merge into the background. On the other hand, our attention appears readily and naturally to focus only on those elements of it which are relevant at the time in question. Hence, to ‘the man in the street’ all of this will surely appear to be no big deal. For example, the objects that are out there in space in everybody’s world are, for the most part, perfectly familiar and therefore part of the normal ‘scene’. Moreover, we can readily predict which ones are likely to move, in – say – a high wind or storm or which will be destroyed (and the perception of the landscape changed) by flood or fire or whatever. Clearly there is great value to be attributed to this familiarity of awareness with objects and features of our individual and corporate worlds. For one thing, it creates and reinforces an invaluable sense of stability and security. Also, from it we learn how to discriminate between and react to those objects and features which will remain still and constant, as opposed to those which will hold the rapidly and/or for which we can predict change or movement.
It is all too temptingly easy to conclude that the picture of whatever part of our external world that falls on the retina is conveyed to the brain and, in reality, is similar to a picture which one might catch on film through the lens of a camera. However, this is anything but the case. Indeed, the truth is that if we ever were to become directly conscious of the visual patterns that such stimuli create in the brain, they would be much more abstract and variegated than we might even so much as imagine. The truth (although this is by no means the time and place to go into such detail) is that between the original projections of the visual pattern, i.e. what is given in terms of sense data and powerful consciousness and recognition of the world of objects etc., there is a series of complex but coordinated mental processes which convert the ‘chaotic’ sense data into the ordered visual perception of the world as we have come to know it.
Another important point to make here refers to, in reality, the constantly changing visual pattern of events that impinge upon the brain and which, in reality, are forever moving and flickering. Were we to become conscious of their true pattern, we should see little more than shimmering lights reflected from a watery base. Yet the truth is that we, every one of us, come to characterize and qualify everything that we see of the world, by its apparent constancy and stability. It might be a colour, as in the case of a red telephone box which, one sunset as I remember it, took on a distinctly purple tinge with golden windows; or it might be the familiar sight of a wheel which we know to be round but which – depending on the angle of perception – may appear to be elliptical.
Now it almost defies the need to here make the nevertheless important point that learning and perception are inextricable intertwined, in the sense that perception, both facilitates and is a benefactor of learning. From our earliest days – continuing on through the years of development to maturity – we learn to identify and rate people, places and objects etc. and to classify and rank them according to their status, worth and importance/relevance to us. And we behave similarly with regard to ideas, and concepts, opinions, beliefs and judgements. Not infrequently, these are complexly linked together, as is the case when judging the speed and distance of a car travelling toward us prior to our making a right hand turn or, within a different context, as when we are forced to judge on the basis of conflicting evidence as to the character or trustworthiness of a friend.
We also know that perception can be influenced by expectations and hopes, as in the manner in which, in the fading light of evening on a country road, a haystack or barn may at first sight be perceived to be the cottage which our tiring mind and aching limbs has been eagerly anticipating. Another somewhat different instance of conflicting perceptions might well concern an adjudged foul or “off-side” decision made at a key moment of the game by the referee at a football match and the consequent melee in terms of the interpretations of both sets of team supporters.
This leads us into the complex but fascinating field in which the clarity and accuracy with which certain phenomena are perceived, is related to and, in some cases, determined by the observer’s interest, as well as by the context within which he perceives them. In other words, phenomena – be they of an animate or inanimate nature – which relate to some inherent motive, i.e. value or interest, are likely to be perceived more readily (other things remaining equal) than is unrelated material of whatever form or nature. This can and does apply at times to the manner in which we form our opinions of or cast our judgements upon others. Cognitive, i.e. thinking and thought-related factors, although not always easy to distinguish or separate from feeling and emotionally-tinged opinions and judgements, have, on the whole, been shown to be more accurate and dependable than the latter.
A good example of the influence of a general affective or emotionally laden factor influencing perception is clearly evident in what is known as the “halo” and “horn” effect influencing our judgements. The “halo” effect is the kind of response bias in perception that is especially prevalent in social situations. In reality, it acts as a kind of prejudice to the effect that someone who is endowed with one good trait, of – say – generosity – will also possess other good traits, e.g. kindness, tolerance etc. (The “horn” effect is of course the converse of the “halo” effect). An interesting and, at times, equally influential adjunct of the “halo” effect, occurs when one – say – meets a stranger who strongly resembles in mannerisms and personality traits, someone known to and liked by one. Accordingly, these same attractive and appealing perceived qualities and characteristics are likely to be attributed to the stranger. (Once again, the adjunct of the “horn” effect is where perceived converse and negative characteristics are similarly transferred to a stranger. An example of this might be where it is considered more difficult to effect a cordial introduction to someone resembling Adolf Hitler, as opposed to Albert Schweitzer).
So then to summarise the contents of this letter: although it is easy to conclude that the world we see with our eyes, touch with our hands, hear with our ears, smell through our nostrils, is the world as it really is, the truth is quite different to that. Behind the retina of the eye for example, lie a host of fallible mental processes of which we are consciously unaware and which can and do produce errors and allow inconsistencies to creep into our perceptions. From infancy onward, perceptions of shape, colour, movement and space gradually develop, as do processes allowing us to manage symbolic material such as words, drawings etc.
When we bring all of these aspects and qualities of mind together, i.e. memory and remembering, the ability to express thought and feeling through the medium of language, the multifarious imports and outcomes of perception, we naturally and necessarily employ a term which indicates the means and sometimes the medium through which they are all expressed, namely “cognition”. This – and what it is about it that makes cognition so essential to any serious consideration of mind and spirit – we shall consider in my next blog. (C) SB.
Note for Information to whom it may concern: I am being approached from time to time with requests for permission to include reference to my postings in their own writings, accompanied, of course, with due acknowledgement of origin and source etc. Not only do I not mind; I am honoured to know that other colleagues regard my work as being in whatever way useful and supportive to their own work. Please ‘be my guest’; thank you for asking; best wishes. SB.