August 30, 2022 by

By John Schorling                     

When we see things, we tend to believe what we see is an accurate reflection of the way things are.  How many times have we seen or heard the phrase “seeing is believing”?  When we see something, usually our automatic reaction is to believe it.  Yet there is much evidence that this is an oversimplification, that what we see is not just a simple and accurate representation of the world around us.

To begin with, far more information enters our eyes than we could ever process in conscious awareness.  This information has to be filtered first, and this filtering occurs automatically without our even knowing that it is occurring.  An estimated one gigabyte of information enters our eyes each second, and is filtered down to just a few bytes of relevant data.  What is considered relevant depends on context and to what we are paying attention.  You may have seen the video of people passing a basketball during which a gorilla walks through.  When focusing on counting the number of passes, about half of observers won’t even see the gorilla.  In this exercise, described here, the context of counting passes leads to the filtering out of the gorilla.

There is also filtering of data that occurs based on past experience, what has been referred to as top-down filtering because higher order parts of the brain are often involved in this activity.  Many optical illusions are based on this process because past experience overrides the actual visual input.  The variations on the Müller-Lyer Illusion (that two equal lines appear to be of different lengths depending on which way arrows at the ends are pointing) shown here demonstrate this.

Even when we know what is occurring, we often cannot override our perceptions. We just do not see the lines as being equal in length.  This was also demonstrated quite dramatically a few years ago with the dress illusion that swept the internet.  Some people saw the dress as blue and black (which it was), and others saw it as white and gold as described here. One explanation for this is that those who automatically interpreted it as being in shadow saw it as white and gold while those who interpreted it as being in direct light saw it as blue and black.

These observations have relevance for mindfulness practice.   When we are paying attention, we can notice our direct sensory experiences and become aware of the perceptions and thoughts that arise.  Knowing that all sensory input is filtered and processed before it reaches our conscious awareness can help us be more flexible and less set in believing that what we think we see is true and accurately reflects a fixed external reality.  Others may observe the same situation and see something entirely different.

We can also notice the judgments and thoughts that arise about what we observe.   We can become aware of how quickly we judge something as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  We can notice how stories unfold based on these judgments and perceptions and how these can then affect our experiences.  We can rest in awareness while observing that all of this occurring, and perhaps not cling to our views so tightly.  After all, as the author Anais Nin’s character Lilian famously reflected in the Seduction of the Minotaur after observing how two people can perceive the same situation very differently “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Filed Under: Monthly Musings