Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 5 June 2016
This month we’re talking about perception. In a sense, we’re thinking about thinking. Science defines perception as the result of how our senses are able to take in what we experience, and how our brains process that information to produce a thought or an idea. Different parts of our brains are perceiving colour, light, sound, smell, and touch. We are taking in millions of points of data to let us know that this thing in front of me is a flower.
Just stop for a moment and consider everything your brain is trying to process right now. How is it that you are able to perceive what is happening in this one moment? It’s truly miraculous.
The landscapes of our lives are so complex, and yet our brains take these atoms and molecules and make sense of it all. Science is still trying to understand how this even works. We wonder if there is some little being or collection of beings inside our heads that is making all our thoughts happen. Remember that wonderful Pixar film Inside Out that I spoke about last year, where five animated characters named Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear take turns running the command centre in the brain of a twelve-year old girl?
Scientists are trying to figure out if our perceptions just organically organize themselves or if some part of the brain — perhaps the claustrum, a thin sliver deep in our brains — may act as a central command station taking information in from distinct areas of the brain and then sending information out to other parts of the brain.
Theologians and philosophers have been contemplating perception forever. They’ve pondered the nature of consciousness and reality and whether there is some greater plan or purpose to our encounter with the world. Think of Plato and the Allegory of the Cave. People living chained in a cave, watching shadows on the wall, perceiving those shadows as reality. Is what we perceive to be reality merely a shadow of the truth? That’s something worth contemplating today as we watch media on hyperdrive shaping our perception of what exists outside of our own personal experience.
Think of Emanuel Kant and his concept of noumena, the reality of things as they actually exist beyond our material perception. There’s the flower that we hold in our hand that we think we see, and then there’s the flower as it exists in its true essence that we can’t see. “Noumena”, I have to say, is one of those words they warned me in seminary to never use in a sermon. But it’s important to know that Kant’s ideas about faith and consciousness strongly influenced the 19th Century Unitarians.
In our daily lives we tend to define perception as the sum total of not just what our senses tell us but how we feel about what our senses tell us. There's this two way aspect of perception. I think you perceive me in one way, but what you actually perceive is probably very different from what I'm imagining — and what I perceive about you may be totally wrong. The same can be said about what we think we hear each other say or even what we perceive through touch. How often do we misunderstand the other person's tone of voice?
"You were yelling at me!"
"No I wasn't. I was just being expressive."
You know the drill. You’ve been there.
These days behavioural economists and cognitive psychologists are trying to link the scientific definition of perception with our emotional perceptions. They are asking this question: How well do we really understand what we perceive on both an intellectual and emotional level? Daniel Kahneman points out that we really have two systems of thinking: one is fast and one is slow. Fast thinking is the mental work that produces impressions and intuitions, enabling us to do many things at the same time, like driving a car, without carefully thinking about it. Slow thinking is the mental process of concentration that enables us to make careful decisions. He says we tend to do too much fast thinking and he carefully demonstrates how the majority of the time our intuitions (and his) are wrong.
Jonathan Haidt says our conscious minds are like a rider on an elephant. Our rational minds function in service to the rest of us, to the large elephant that is really made up of the intuitions that come first in our response to everything. He says we are constantly reacting intuitively to everything around us without realizing it, without thinking about it. We like or we dislike, we agree or we disagree on a gut level first, then we consciously think. Our reaction comes first, and then we rationalize to convince ourselves that we are right, without even realizing that’s what we’re doing.
The problem, most cognitive psychologists argue, is that we think that our perceptions are pretty accurate. But a lot of research shows that we’re really not so good at this — that trusting our own intuitions or fast assumptions can be dangerous for ourselves and for society as a whole. Take for example the work of David Dunning and Justin Kruger who analyzed people’s perceptions of their own abilities. What they discovered is something now called the Dunning-Kruger effect: The less knowledge you have about something, the more expert you think you are.
In their research, students predicted how well they would do on a test compared to their peers. The top students assumed that they would do less well than the average, while the students who did the very worst on the tests assumed that they would score well above average. They were the ones who had no problem demanding that their professors reconsider their scores, insisting that the test was flawed, rather than that their knowledge was flawed.
As Dunning writes: “What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.” Dunning warns that we all — even professors of cognitive psychology and ministers — have blind spots where we are convinced that we excel but actually do poorly. The problem is that we can’t see this deficiency on our own.
At the centre of our Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles we say that we affirm the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. As Kahneman and Haidt tell us, we think we know what we think, but we really let ourselves get fooled too easily by our misguided intuition. As Dunning and Kruger suggest, we are prone to thinking we know and understand more than we do. So how do we proceed responsibly if we have a faulty relationship with our perceptions?
I want to take you back to those 19th Century Unitarians for a moment, to the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great 19th century transcendentalist thinker. In his book Nature, Emerson had a different take on perception. He argued that every individual has the capacity to fully know the universe if they engage directly with nature. He saw this as a personal process that would bring us into connection with the all-encompassing universe that embraces matter and spirit into one interrelated whole. Emerson called this the great Oversoul, the spirit that exists beyond the material world that we perceive. By bringing ourselves into deeper connection with nature, he said, we can begin to discover for ourselves the Oversoul that connects us to everything. Expanding our perception then becomes the work of spirituality.
I’d like to believe that each of us has the capacity to calibrate our perception by slowing down and taking in what the natural world has to teach us, even in an urban environment. I think there’s a lot of value in Emerson’s perspective, but he thought you could get there entirely alone. I don’t believe we can do this alone, not if we want to truly make sense of it all. We need community. We need one another not only when we are hurting or grieving, but also when we’ve convinced ourselves of truths that may be totally off base.
I think this is the hardest part of being in a community that values diversity of thought. Maybe this is my Dunning-Kruger moment. I perceive that I’m communicating well and sometimes I can be so wrong about that. It’s just too easy to gravitate toward people who comfortably agree with you. Who doesn’t want to be in their comfort zone? Maybe we need others to not only inspire us but to also challenge us, because we’re just not capable of seeing clearly alone.
In the end, I think Emerson was right when he said that we need to pay exquisite attention to all we encounter. As William Blake wrote:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.
It is amazing how our brains are constantly making sense of the world. How much we have yet to understand. How wonderful it is that we are each so unique, down to the very way we each perceive every tiny thing. May we honour and celebrate those differences by opening ourselves to all that community and the world has to teach us.
Amen. Blessed Be. Namasté.
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