Do our perceptions reflect the reality?

One of my clients who is a very successful professional sees himself as a very inadequate person with shame and self doubts. Another client of mine with eating disorder and is severely underweight perceives herself as very fat. People in these extreme cases cannot perceive the reality objectively and distortedly think that they can see the fact. Are we having the same issue that we think we are able to perceive the reality as it is but actually we are not?

To answer this question, let us simplify the discussion into understanding our vision. When we see a flower, the sensory input of the flower enters the visual cortex of our brain through the thalamus. (The thalamus passes our sensory input from receptors in our body to the cerebral cortex for processing.). Through the interpretation of our visual cortex, we can recognise the object is a flower. In his book “The Brain”, David Eagleman explained that there are ten times more of information going in the opposite direction from the visual cortex to the thalamus when we perceive a flower. This means that our expectation of what a flower will be like from our previous experiences will contribute to our perception of the flower we are perceiving. Therefore, our perception on an object relies less on the light streaming into our eyes, but more on our internal model developed through our previous experiences.

The implication of how our vision works is that we are not constantly seeing the reality as it is from scratch. Instead, we are comparing the sensory input with the internal model of our brain that is constructed through our life experiences. Extending this concept to our perception in abstract sense (not only visual perception), our interpretations in what we come across may not be the objective reality. In fact, it is more likely that we interpret what is happening to us or we perceive ourselves under the influences of our internal model in our brain.

For instance, one of my clients, who perceives himself as being inadequate, predicted the intention of his boss to initiate a meeting was to criticise his work performance. However, it turned out that his boss wanted to meet him to discuss with him his intention to promote him. Another client of mine with paranoid ideas interpreted his friend’s invitation to participate in a project as a plan to test him on his competence with the intention to belittle him. These two examples are in the extreme of the spectrum of inability to perceive the reality. To help these two clients, I need to apply different approaches in psychotherapy to target their core issues related to their psychopathology. For the general public, how can we be more objective in our perception of the reality. (In fact, we may never be able to really perceive the reality or the reality may even not exist.)

To develop our objectivity, or at least, being able to see slightly more objectively, we may cultivate mindfulness in our perception of our world and ourselves. By regularly practicing mindfulness exercises, such as sitting meditation and body scan, we can cultivate mindfulness in our perception. After practicing mindfulness exercises, I am more likely to be able to observe details in objects that I did not observe before. It is because, without mindful awareness, I usually perceive objects basing on my internal model of what the objects look like and omitting lots of details. Thus, we may be able to perceive in a slightly more objective way through mindfulness practice.

In the face of all the chaos in the world nowadays, it is inevitable that we tend to perceive our world with our preconceptions and internal model. However, as our world becomes more and more complicated, it is of paramount importance for us to develop an ability to perceive the world with more objectivity.

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