Our view of the outside world is based on how we categorize our past experiences. Over time we form patterns that can skew our lives. Not patterns of behavior but patterns used to perceive current events. In order to synchronize a new America, a new renaissance . . . we must all recalibrate our patterns of perception. Our collective future depends on it.
My first encounter with differences in perception is a common experience for most kids. Mine came on a beautiful summer day just before the second grade when, with lunches packed and an agreement to be home before dark, a group of neighborhood kids rode our bikes out into the neighborhood and played all day.
Coming home that night, I learned how my perception of “dark” was vastly different than my parents’. Since I was outside, my eyes had slowly adjusted to the gradual darkening of twilight. To me it wasn’t dark as long as I could see. My parent’s eyes however, were accustomed to the bright lights inside the house so when they stepped outside the house into the evening, it was too dark for them to see. As I discovered, grounded and grumpy in my room, “dark” was defined by the observer. Dark was not about brightness but about perception. Dark was that time of night when my parents could no longer find me if I got lost. To my parents, dark was dangerous. To me, dark was exciting. Same dark. Different perception.
Perception is the ability to observe elements of the environment with the capacity for comprehension. However, your perception is also heavily influenced by the experiences you encounter. You are the summation of your trials and your tribulations . . . you are your life baggage. Your unique experiences temper your outlook and therefore, you see the world differently than anyone else. Each of us has acquired certain experiences that influence how we perceive new events.
We fit our experiences into patterns and we continually compare our new experiences against these patterns of our prior experiences. In our lives there is SOOO much data we would be overwhelmed . . . paralyzed . . . if we had to stop and consider each and every nuance of every situation. The only way to deal with the immensity is by fitting the data into patterns. You do this unconsciously and continuously and you can’t even get out of bed in the morning without doing it. Part of the way you do this is to memorize facts, learn rules, remember conclusions you’ve come to, and let those guide you. From the moment you’re born, if not before, your brain constantly works to identify patterns in all that you have ever seen (or heard or smelled or felt) before. Then, when you see something new, you can instantly tell whether it fits any of your established patterns.
When a new event closely fits your experience, you can confidently perceive the intricacies of the situation. When the new event doesn’t fit the pattern of your experience, you imagine probable events, based on your past experiences, and fill in the blanks. This helps unique situations fit into known patterns by skewing the actual situation.
Fitting an event into an established pattern does not always produce an accurate conclusion, though. Here’s a hypothetical example. We have all had a bad experience and we seem to remember bad things when they happen. The next time a similar situation arises, we have a natural tendency to recall the bad experience and react to the new situation as though it was an extension of the initial experience. Imagine yourself walking down the sidewalk and seeing a group of teenagers coming toward you. If you remember a situation when a similar group was disrespectful, you might react to the group with distain, thinking that all teenagers are disrespectful. On the other side of the situation, the teenagers approaching you might remember the last time a similar situation occurred when they were unduly chastised for no apparent reason. The teenagers may think that all adults are discriminatory against teenagers. The patterns we use to judge events can create confusion that is difficult to overcome.
Here’s an actual front page story from the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho: a kitten died. Hardly headline news, except that three teenage boys were accused of torturing the little kitten to death. Big news. Loud public outcry. The report focused on an elderly woman who had seen the boys chase the cat out of a yard. She assumed they had been mistreating the animal and everyone she told the story to—the neighbors, the police, the press—found it easy to believe her and called for an immediate solution . . . criminal prosecution. An eventual autopsy of the cat showed no signs of torture, abuse, or mistreatment. Instead, it became clear that it had died of a common feral cat virus. The community uproar was based on common experiences: a) kittens are cute and helpless, and b) teenage boys can be cruel. The story of the kitten and the boys is just one example of how fallible our perception can be. Our patterns of experience combined with our intense desire to solve problems quickly can shield us from seeing the actual facts and skew our perception.
Have your life experiences formed patterns that lead you to think positively about new encounters? Or negatively? It’s difficult to look beyond the obvious and uncover a truer reality. Just because something used to follow a certain pattern doesn’t mean that the pattern is still valid. Patterns are constantly changing and we must recognize and embrace these changes. We must continually re-calibrate our perception of reality. Common things like buying a home, driving our car, investing, getting an education, finding employment, selling goods and services, or communicating with friends and family follows vastly different patterns than just a decade ago. Understanding how we form perceptual patterns gives us the ability to see new things in new ways and with confidence, grow a positive future. A renaissance.
The next time you encounter a familiar situation, ask yourself how closely it fits your pattern of experience. Lift your blindfold. Chances are . . . the situation is similar but uniquely different. Look beyond the obvious and you’ll begin to expand your perceptive prowess. Try approaching the situation from a different point-of-view and strive for an outcome that’s as unique as the situation itself. You can win at this mind game if you recognize how your perceptions are affected by your experience.