Provocations #10 – Perceptions

“From the viewpoint of your eyes your own head seems to be an invisible blank, neither dark nor light, standing immediately behind the nearest thing you can see. But in fact the whole field of ‘out there in front’ is a sensation in the lower back if your head, where the optical centers of the brain are located. What you see out there is, immediately, how the inside of your head ‘looks’ or ‘feels’.”

Alan Watts

This is a remarkable thought.  I have long maintained (one of my aphorisms) that there is no reality, there are only our perceptions of it.

Imagine a pleasant summer day.  It’s mid-day and there is not a cloud in the sky in any direction.  You look straight up and what do you see?  Blue!  Perhaps we might even call it sky blue.  And the reasonable among us would all agree about this (one must always allow for the contrarians!).

But our experience of blue is likely very different.  For starters, we do not actually “see” blue light.  Scientifically speaking, blue light is visible electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 450–495 nanometers.  However, our eyes take in the image of ‘blue sky’, inverting and bending it as they do so, and transforms it into electrical signals sent through the optic nerve to the brain for processing and interpretation.  The Scientific American has a nice cartoon graphic of the process here.

And there’s the rub!  The brain is interpreting electrochemical signals, not the actual scene itself.  Following Alan Watts’ teachings about Buddhism, as well as  practical experience and modern science, this is reality.  That’s part of the point.

But the interesting bit to me is that the brain functions by establishing vast and complex neural networks based on electrochemical signals.  The neural pathways I establish for the blue sky scene I’m seeing, and all previous and successive blue skies, are linked to other sensations and experiences.  Certainly these neural patterns of entwined memories, experiences, and sensations are entirely and utterly unique for each individual.  So our perception of blue sky is also, by definition, unique.  What we see is inextricably linked to how we see it.  The observer and the observed are inseparable.

Taking a slight diversion into the realm of modern physics for a moment, this notion manifests itself in many ways.  For example the “observer effect” is a theory that states that simply observing a phenomenon, actually (necessarily) changes the phenomenon being observed.  Another example is Werner Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle.” In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle states that the more precisely one characteristic is known, say the position of a particle, the less precisely another quantity can be known, such as the momentum of the particle.

By extension, the same can be said of our perceptions and experiences of literally everything.  We cannot extricate ourselves and our sense of self, from nature and the world, any more than you can separate front from back or up from down.  We are of it.  Experience is it.  And we all are marvelously and wondrously unique in this.  And more importantly, we are all connected by this.

I think that Jose Ortega y Gasset put it best:

“I am myself and what is around me, and if I do not save it, it shall not save me.”