As a writer, I am constantly trying to create stories with characters that are complex and full of emotion, to describe worlds with concrete details, to infuse every story with a weight and reality that will make it live on the page. While I do this, I try to always remember just how limited my perceptions are.
“Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening.”
~ David Eagleman
Just like when we tell stories to each other, we humans, when we look at the world around us, are in the business of making meaning. The more we learn about the brain, the more it becomes clear that there is no way for us to perceive the world in a neutral way, unbiased by our own prejudices and instincts. If this is true of our understanding of the physical world, I think it’s doubly so for our interactions with other people (and, I would posit, animals).
Lifehacker has a great post about perception, and why it’s good to disrupt our usual ways of seeing things. Anyone can benefit from shaking up their routines and challenging their assumptions. It’s refreshing to see things a little differently.
For a writer, it’s a critical skill. If I’m going to create unique characters – real characters, not just straw men and women mouthing some opinion I personally don’t agree with – then I must empathize even with the very people who vex me the most. If I am to describe the places these characters inhabit in ways that are fresh and real, I must try to see the world afresh through my same old eyes.
The first step is to acknowledge that your own reality and Reality are not one and the same.
“David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt: the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there.”
Here are two great books that helped me wrap my head around the limits of my own perceptions.
Incognito by David Eagleman (His book, Sum, is excellent too!)
Here’s a quote:
“The deep secret of the brain is that not only the spinal cord but the entire central nervous system works this way: internally generated activity is modulated by sensory input. In this view, the difference between being awake and being asleep is merely that the data coming in from the eyes anchors the perception. Asleep vision (dreaming) is perception that is not tied down to anything in the real world; waking perception is something like dreaming with a little more commitment to what´s in front of you. Other examples of unanchored perception are found in prisoners in pitch-park solitary confinement, or in people in sensory deprivation chambers. Both of these situations quickly lead to hallucinations.”
“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves. Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.”