The Curiosity of Perception

On February 26, 2015, this photo became an Internet sensation as people argued about whether the colours of the dress were blue and black or white and gold.  People in my workplace at the time, defended their position and couldn’t understand how others didn’t see what they did.

According to the Wikipedia article on this item, the phenomenon revealed differences in human colour perception which have been the subject of ongoing scientific investigation in neuroscience and vision science, with a number of papers published in peer-reviewed science journals.

Unfortunately, some perceptions aren’t as black and white (or white and gold!) as the dress conundrum–or as easy to understand.

What is Perception?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perception as the way we think about or understand someone or something.  It’s the ability to understand or notice something easily.  Perception describes the way that we notice or understand something using one of our senses.  It’s part of being human, and one of the ways that we make sense of our world.  But how does it play out in daily life?

Perception in Practice

If we are always using our sense of perception, do we ever run into problems? Unfortunately, yes.  Our perceptions can lead us down the path of judgement–which can encourage separation from others rather than inclusiveness.

An Exercise

Take a moment and imagine that you are on a crowded bus.  It’s the beginning of the day and you’re travelling to work.  On the bus is a father with two young children.  The man is starring into space as his children run up and down the aisles, yelling at the top of their lungs. The boys appear to be unkempt–dirty faces and rumpled clothes.  Their father ignores them as they ask a woman sitting near to them if they can have a bite of her muffin.

Many people’s first perception could be that the “father is incompetent”.  Why isn’t he parenting his children?  We may think that the children are badly behaved and neglected. We  wonder if there is a need to call Family and Children’s Services.

How does our opinion change, if we know the story of this small family?  What if we were able to read this man’s mind to discover that he had been at the hospital all night sitting with his dying wife?  That this visit would be the last time that the boys would see their mother?  Suddenly, we see the situation from a place of compassion, and a desire to help may take hold of us.

It comes down to perception.

Perception in the Bigger Picture

There is a concept about perception that I encountered years ago in the Utne Reader.  The writer was exploring how the citizens of one country could be convinced to wage war against the people of another.  She suggested that the first step was to change the population’s perspective of the proposed enemy–a movement from seeing them as people to “Them”.  “Us” were the ‘good guys’–honest, hardworking, family-focused, ‘in the right‘.  Over time,  “Them” became demonized–a ‘not “Us”‘.  The writer posited that it’s easier to be willing to hurt others when we don’t see them as human.

Again, it comes down to perception.

Perceptions and Thought Patterns in Health

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living:  Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness writes about the connection between perception (thoughts) and health.

Kabat-Zinn states:

“Although we are often unaware of our thoughts as thoughts, they have a profound effect on everything we do and they can have a profound effect on our health as well, which can be better or worse.”

The writer goes on the explain that in his opinion there are two basic filters on the world–optimism and pessimism.   Individuals who are more pessimistic tend to blame themselves for negative events in their lives and see them as lasting for a long time.  When encountering a negative event or failure, pessimistic thinking may look like:  “I always knew I was stupid and this proves it; I can never do anything right.”.

Individuals who have a more optimistic perception of negative events tend not to blame themselves and if they do, see them as short-term ones that will be resolved.  Rather than catastrophizing, i.e. having sweeping global statements about the event, they see the event as having specific consequences related to the incident.

From a mental health perspective, Kabat-Zinn cites research showing that individuals who have a highly pessimistic perception/style are at a significantly higher risk for becoming depressed when they encounter a negative event than are those who have a more optimistic way of thinking.

It appears that our perception of the world and what we think about those perceptions has an effect on our health.

Working With Perception in Therapy

One of the gifts of therapy is the opportunity for a change of perspective.  Often the binds and broken relationships that we find ourselves in can be connected to judging a person, place, historical event or situation and then creating stories based on our perceptions. These stories become the narrative that runs through our lives.  Changing perspective helps us to change our stories.

There is a story of a young woman who lost her memory due to a stroke.  Until her memory returned she had no judgments about anything from her past.  One day she met a man who introduced himself as her father.  Until that time, the daughter had chosen to end the relationship with her Dad due to a serious misunderstanding.  However, because of the brain trauma, she was able to look at everything from a place of ‘beginner’s mind’–i.e.  it was all new.  Because she didn’t know the history, she was able to develop a positive relationship with her Dad that continued once she became well.

In Life Review Therapy the therapist helps the client to look at past, painful events from the perspective of the current day.  Like the example of the young father on the bus, the client is able to fill in the pieces of missing information and in doing so re-frame stories that they may have been telling themselves.

When couples come to therapy, a lot of the work involves helping each partner to see situations, conflicts and past hurts from the perspective of the other.  In the process, each person can gain an understanding of how misunderstandings arose, the repercussions of shared actions and a greater love and respect for the resiliency of themselves, each other and their relationship.

At it’s core, therapy is mostly about stories–the stories that a client tells are the clay that is molded by the therapist and client together to create something new.  A thought that I’ve often heard clients express, sometimes in a state of bemusement is: “I’ve never thought of it that way before.”.

It’s all about perspective.

Now, for a lesson in perspective from childhood…enjoy!

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