As children, we have an innate curiosity. We look at the world around us with fresh eyes, always looking for the new and exciting. We ask “why” and “what” and “how”, ad nauseum. But somewhere along life’s journey, we dampen this desire to engage with the new.
Our ego, training and habits bind us to a limited perspective.
I recently saw this photo doing the rounds on Facebook, and it reminded me how we get caught up in perception.
This is a black and white photograph. Only the lines have colour.
What you “see” is what your 🧠 predicts the reality to be, given the imperfect information it gets. pic.twitter.com/gwttlcC2Zw
— Lionel Page (@page_eco) July 27, 2019
“The Map is not the Territory”.
Our minds are constantly building maps and outlines of reality. But they are merely that – maps, not the facts.
How we see the world influences our decisions. But are we seeing what is or what we are accustomed to seeing?
The power of perception:
Ideally, perception is interoception (inner self-awareness) and exteroception (from our senses, an awareness of our surroundings & environment). Of course, if we were to attempt to do this consciously at all times, we would be exhausted and overwhelmed. Therefore, it becomes automated and unconscious processing of the world and our experience of it.
When we stop processing the small details, we can then turn our attention to “important”. But of course, what is essential is also filtered through our subconscious processes: subjective, fluid & constantly changing.
Unknowingly, we select what we see, hear and pay attention to. We then organise all things sensed in our minds and then unconsciously interpret these messages, assigning meaning.
This impacts not only how we respond to events, but all aspects of our lives, including our relationships. Our perception affects conversations and interactions, and we interact with others based on what we have learned about people and how they act in the world.
The challenges of perception
How we perceive the world leads to many challenges, primarily when we rely on habituation rather than curiosity and engagement.
“The map is not the territory.”
Imagine that you have a map of the city you live in. While this may inform you of the streets, their names & intersections, it fails to include details about the traffic conditions, the weather or anything about the people that live there. A map cannot tell you the attitudes, stressors and emotions of a given day.
Unfortunately, our subconscious mind limits our perception to the maps that it has created through habituation. This allows it to process the environment more efficiently (concerning your attention and energy). However, what you will see will be limited and impacted by your internal cues.
So, for example, if you are tired, your mind will dial down the attention span to conserve your energy rather than bringing more things into focus. Additionally, your ANS (autonomic nervous system) does the same when in fight/flight mode. In this case, your ANS places your attention on danger cues rather than listening for normal sounds or noticing moves that are not danger signals. Similarly, if you are so exhausted that your body decides you need to shut down and shut out the world, it will simply take you into apathy and ignore most of everything.
While these habitual patterns can be helpful, they impact your perception – limiting what you see, hear and experience internally and in the world around you.
The rule of three – patterns & generalisations
Another challenge we face in our perception is that our mind automatically makes rules and generalisations. In particular, when a given person or situation repeats the same patterns, the mind begins to anticipate the pattern and automatically sees the “outcome” based on the pattern rather than actually what is occurring.
Your experience sets up expectations. You respond according to your expectations of how a person will behave or a situation will play out, and in some cases, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You get exactly the outcome you expect because your participation in the events precipitated this outcome.
The RSA filters
Similarly to what I have mentioned already, our brains have a part that filters out the unnecessary “noise”. This is known as the RAS (Reticular Activating System) – about the size of your little finger.
“The primary function of RAS is to alert the higher brain centres when important messages are received and to filter incoming messages” (Functions of Reticular Activating System (RAS) | Brain | Neurology)
Think of it as a sensory gatekeeper – which can tell the sensor receptors not to send conflicting messages AND “hold all calls” until we’ve dealt with this emergency. Based on habituation, it signals the brain and relays to the senses where to focus your attention. But what if it habitually places your attention on the wrong signals?
Thankfully, we have neuroplasticity, and we can select and choose what we consider important and decide to focus on. But we have to make a conscious choice of this, rather than allowing our RSA to function on habituation. This is why it’s essential to stay curious and engaged in the present moment!
“It’s not a big deal.”
One of the ways that our brain decides what is or is not necessary is what we make a big deal out of. This is both celebrations as well as complaining and emotional outbursts. If we make a big deal out of anything, especially if we have a pattern of making something, our mind assigns this importance.
Each time you make a big deal out of anything – even if you’re upset because someone offended you – your mind notes, “This is important. Pay attention to these signals”.
The power of your language
Similarly, your language impacts your perception and how you see the world.
For example, when I was new to Panama, I discovered that “accountability” did not exist in Spanish. In business, there was a term of “to render accounts”. But if you think about this, it doesn’t have the same connotations of personal accountability. What does it mean to be held accountable, and how is this different from rendering accounts? People are responsible or liable, not accountable.
Consider, for a moment, what this might mean when you look at the world and how you interact with it. Does it impact or change your perception in any way?
How we make meaning:
At the same time, our perception goes hand-in-hand with making meaning. Even something as simple as being asked to notice how many Toyota vehicles are on the road today – suddenly, your RSA and perception increase the importance of taking note of Toyotas. You have now changed your filters and suddenly notice “there are a lot of Toyotas on the road”. The reality is – there are probably no more Toyotas on the road today than there were yesterday! But yesterday, they had no meaning, and you ignored them.
So what happens in our mind when someone tells us “X person is mad at you” or “X likes you”? Suddenly, we notice small cues and body language that we previously ignored and overlooked. We place importance on how close or how far away from us they stand. Suddenly we notice how they look at us and the nuances of their body language. Whether we like it or not, we have selective perception. We see based on our interests, values & beliefs.
Once again, our expectations and responses may become self-fulfilling prophecies because of the meaning that we assign.
Letting go of certainty – opening to curiosity
Of course, nothing is set in stone. We select our perception – where we focus our attention – and then draw the conclusions that align with our way of seeing the world. These are often conclusions that align with our past experiences – of situations, events and people.
If you want to see the world and others differently, you have to let go of the certainty that you already know what will happen or how they will act!
Can you approach each interaction with another person with curiosity – open to interact and listen? Or will you be dismissive because you already know how things will play out? Will you stereotype, judge and categorise?
Could you let go of certainty?
People change & grow.
I recently talked with a close friend – my “brother from another mother” – about his personal growth. He commented on how his growth impacted his marriage. As he grows and changes, he forgets to let his wife regularly know of the breakthroughs he’s having! His sudden flashes of clarity blindside her: although he contemplated the matter for weeks. Suddenly, he comes up with a new way of looking at his business challenges, and she has no idea where it has come from.
I wonder to myself how often I am in that position, yet unaware. I treat someone or speak to them “as I’ve always done” – when I could approach and engage with them with curiosity: “Where are you at today?”. Somehow, I assume that my friends or family are where they have always been.
We don’t make this mistake with children. We assume that they’ve grown and changed, learned new things and ways of looking at the world. Consider conversations with kids, especially ones you haven’t seen in a few weeks or months- you inquire and engage. You don’t assume that they are still at the same level as when you last saw them.
And yet, with other adults, we don’t afford them that same engagement. What would change in your relationships if you engaged with curiosity?
Curiosity has the power to change how you perceive another person.
Perception impacts decision-making
As we clarify our perceptions, we lose our misconceptions. As we eliminate ambiguity, we lose illusion as well.
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
The way we perceive any situation – and the options open to us – directly impacts how we respond and take action. When we are close-minded, we limit our ability to think “out of the box”.
The power of engagement
When you pay attention – staying present – you notice the most. Of course, you expend more mental energy when you are engaged in the present moment.
Time slows down.
Days are longer.
You notice more.
You live more.
It’s living like that three-year-old that notices and sees everything. There is nothing more than the present moment: no future to be anxious about and no past to be depressed about.
Could you do that for just one day? One hour?
What would happen to your power of perception if you practised engagement? Being present within yourself – interception – and being present with your environment and others. What would be different in your world?
The power of curiosity to fuel your personal growth
You know, as well as I do, that if you want a different result – you need to do things differently from what you’ve done them this far.
I’m suggesting looking at the world with wonder and curiosity: change your perspective and point of view.
- Start to listen with new ears. What do you hear?
- What do you see when you look at the world through fresh eyes?
- Stop and smell the roses or the fresh-cut grass. Allow the aroma of the bakery to fill you with joy and wonder for just a moment.
- Take the time to sit and savour the taste of your coffee or favourite dish, simply being present with the pleasure of taste.
How does the world look different when you approach it with curiosity?