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Do we perceive the reality?

In 2007, a violin player played Bach’s pieces for about 45 minutes in a subway station in Washington DC. During the 45 minutes, only six people stopped and listened for a short while. 20 people gave some money to this violinist without stopping to listen. When the violinist finished his performance, no one applauded. In fact, this violinist is Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. Among the approximate 2000 people passing by in that morning, all of them perceived Joshua Bell as some poor violinist performing for money in a cold morning. No one was able to see the reality that a famous musician was playing violin in the subway station.

We may think we can see the reality. However, our perception is constantly affected by our internal mental models. Our senses selectively respond to the object of our perception based on our past experiences. In normal circumstances, we select which objects or parts of an object to enter our attention based on our “database” in our brain. In neuroscience, evidence showed that the brain perceives the “reality” based on an internal model.  When a person passing by the subway station seeing Joshua Bell playing violin, the visual information was sent to the visual cortex for processing via the thalamus. The person was able to see a man playing violin from the processing of the visual cortex. On the other hand, there are much more information the visual cortex actually sending back via the thalamus. As a result, the person perceived the man as just a poor violinist performing for money. The person’s perception is based on his or her past experiences that someone playing violin in subway station is usually performing for money.

The story of Joshua Bell playing violin in subway station showed us our tendency to distort the reality basing on our past experiences. In fact, we also tend to pay more attention to objects that reinforce our sense of identity. We see and pay attention to things that interest us or confirm our role or identity. As a result, we frequently omit some salient information of objects we see. For instance, many women wanting to buy a car may only choose the one with the best colour and outlook. It is because many women are interested in the appearance of a car rather than its technical specifications.

In the face of all the uncertainties we are facing nowadays, we need to understand our limitations in perception of the reality. We need to cultivate a beginner’s mind with mindful awareness. Things are more complicated than we think. We need to let go of our preconceptions and assumptions when we try to understand the reality.

To start, we may try to practice mindfulness in order to give us inner space to expand our perception. For example, we may try to see a flower mindfully, so that we can perceive it’s details we seldom pay attention to. Furthermore, when we are being mindful of our judgment on someone or something, we may learn to step back and take different perspectives. Next time when we face a complicated situation, let us try to use our senses fully and take different perspectives to perceive rather than just rely on our automation.

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