Friday, December 13, 2013

Perception Controls Possibility

What you see controls how you think.  And how you think controls what you can see. Lots of people are shopping for the holidays right now and I can bet that someplace in the world a busy executive, a teenager and a retired cop are all walking through the same mall... but they aren't walking in the same world.

What you see completely controls what you can do.  You can't solve a problem you can't see.  You can't implement a solution you can't imagine.  And it's not just what you see, it's how you see it.

A chair is for sitting in.  If all you see is a chair, the only affordance in that chair is sitting (and lounging and snuggling… but all chair stuff). If you see it as a shape, you have the additional affordances of all the things you can do with flat surfaces.  See it another way and it is a flotation device; or a ladder; or a collection of fabric, wood and metal that can be deconstructed…

The more you perceive, the bigger the world and your possibilities increase.  The more you look for things, the less you see.  Narrowing your focus narrows your mind.  We all know the one-trick-pony-professional-victim who can construe any statement as proof of oppression. Looked at one way, they're annoying as hell.  They are just as or even more into oppressing others as the people they rail against.  Looked at a little different, they are sad little people looking so hard for ugly--creating it if they can't find it-- that they will never see beauty.

The first drill I ever learned for this was from a survival class in '81 or '82.  The drill was to come up with twenty uses for a spoon that had nothing to do with scooping or eating.  It was hard at first. I think it took most of the hour for most of us to make or lists.  Now I sometimes pick random items and it's rare for it to take more than five minutes to come up with twenty things.

This even applies to abstract things and to people.  Being able to come up with a hundred different answers to a question is cool.  Coming up with a hundred different ways to interpret or alter the question is an order of magnitude more powerful.  Want to be rich? I live in a house that's warm and dry; I can get cold drinks from the fridge and hot water falling from the sky (a shower) on demand. My food today came from at least two continents and originated in at least three.  No Roman emperor had this luxury.  I am typing this on a machine that no government in the world could have obtained 35 years ago.  I am richer in material things than the the entire US government was a century ago.  My life is awash in things unobtainable.

That's just material riches.  At what point in history did it become possible to read both Lao Tzu and Marcus Aurelius? 

That was abstractions.  What about people? How you label a person controls what you perceive and controls your affordances, your possibilities.  If K was my wife it creates a relationship that comes with roles and scripts.  She is undoubtedly my wife.  She is also the best thing the universe has ever created and somehow I am allowed to be in her presence. 'Wife' means certain comforts and annoyances. 'The best thing in the universe' makes it easy to be madly in love for a quarter of a century.

Is someone your enemy?  Or a human being who believes you are part of his wealth of problems? Is that your student? Or a companion on this journey?

And yourself.  What labels do you put on yourself that artificially control your behavior?  Are they necessary?  Do you have to be you? (The answer is 'no' by the way, but people get very uncomfortable with the fact that they are constantly changing.)

In the interaction, sometimes conflict comes up because of incompatible labels.  I see most protesters as whiny, entitled punks. They see themselves as champions of the underdog du jour.  If you are having trouble with your significant other, quit seeing her as your wife or girlfriend for awhile and find out how she labels herself.  Try working from there.

The ideal is to just see, without the labeling.  That's hard.  But it maximizes possibility.


Lloyd said...

"The first drill I ever learned for this was from a survival class in '81 or '82. The drill was to come up with twenty uses for a spoon that had nothing to do with scooping or eating. It was hard at first. I think it took most of the hour for most of us to make or lists. Now I sometimes pick random items and it's rare for it to take more than five minutes to come up with twenty things."

Rory, youve put me on to a new habit!

louisjkim said...

This good post reminded me of one of the first photography books I read as a child, Freeman Patterson's Photography and the Art of Seeing. In it, he say children see, adults see labels.

Anonymous said...

When I first read this post, I thought, "Wow, that sounds like a fun exercise. I've never played that game before!"

But then I realized, around here we play it all the time ... backwards.

"Hey you guys, I can't find the screwdriver. Help find me something we could use instead!"

"No problem. You can use the edge of this spoon for that, after I'm done using it as a hammer."

Unknown said...

Just a quote that says essentially the same thing you say in this post-a good one in my book.

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” R.D. Laing

Jake said...

When I was twelve, I spent a week at summer camp run by the Audubon Society. One of the counselors, Julie, told me something that stuck with me, well, forever.

"Necessity is not the mother of invention. Necessity is the mother of improvisation. When in doubt, improvise."

This post reminded me of that. Again.

Josh Kruschke said...



We see the world through filters. Labels are just a manifestation of our filters. We see the world then we label it.

An interesting concept that rhymes with your Plastic Mind Drills is "Six Thinking Hats" by Edward de Bono.

Also fits in with the Triune Brain model.

And is what we base our scripts in.

Before you can work with, fix, manipulate or control yourself or your environment (agency) you have to identify the problem or what you are working with, and with that comes labels. A lot of what causes us to fail is a failure in perception. It's not the labels themselves that are a problem, but how we choose them & what do they mean to us.

Not only do we have filters that cloud how we see the world, but layers too.

So, not only should we ask, are we using correct labels, but it might be informative to ask, why did we choose those labels in the first place.

If we can understand how and why we view the world the way do, this will lead us to a better understand or clearer perception to base our future acts of agency.


After all that we need to realize our perceptions is our perceptions and no others. No one see the world or has experienced the world in the same way.

In stead of meeting the world and people as is we try to force the world to meet our expectations and labels.