Would you say that grass is green?
How sure can you be about that?
Grass has no colour of its own! It is green for us because we have three types of cones (or photoreceptors) in our eyes that determine how we see the world.
Light bounces off objects, including grass, and is absorbed by these cones, which give them the colour we see them in. Atoms are invisible. The world itself is light and shade. Our cones grade it for us so that we understand it better.
Some find this hard to believe. In a world of arguments over who is right and wrong, it would mean that even with something seemingly obviously true like the colour of grass, there is in fact no absolute correct way of perceiving the world. It would also mean that any species with different cones would see the same world in a different way. This is indeed true.
Dogs have two cones. They don’t see green grass. They see the grass, but it’s beige. While you and I see a rainbow of colours after a rainfall, a dog sees the same rainbow as a kind of dark blue, lighter blue, beige, dark yellow, greyish.
We are trichromats because we have three cones for colour, while dogs are dichromats because they have two. Are dogs impoverished then because their vision is so poor? Not really! That would be akin to saying that humans are impoverished too because bees have four cones (tetrachromats) and some butterfly species have 6 or more (hexachromats).
As an aside, dogs smell the world as much as than they look at it. Their brain regions for smell are huge compared with those of humans. When he was alive, my dog Oscar would often bolt away all of a sudden and I’d chase after him and find him in a park. He caught the scent of his best friend, Sam, at a range of over a quarter of a mile.
Returning to vision, bees and butterflies see ultraviolet. While you and I may admire a simple flower on a summer day, a bee or butterfly sees the same flower with ultraviolet light glistening all over and around it. Goldfish are tetrachromats too, but they can also see minute static electric charges and bioluminescence that occur when the sound waves of predators that hunt using sonar bounce off nearby plants.
Some cephalopods, like cuttlefish, even see polarised light. It allows them to see a depth of world that simply doesn’t exist for humans.
Many birds can see the Earth’s magnetic field. They have a photopigment in their eyes called cryptochrome that researchers believe allows them to see the Earth’s magnetic field overlain like augmented reality over the everyday terrain, like roads pointing North and South. It is this ‘avian magnetic compass’ that is believed to help birds fly thousands of miles each winter, only to return in the spring not only to the same town, but to the same branch of the same tree in the same garden that they set off from months earlier. Who needs a Smartphone with location services when you have a satnav in your eyes?
Magnetic fields and ultraviolet light – these things are invisible to humans, but they exist in our visual space all the same. It is our perceptual abilities that determine what we experience.
The brain can allow us to experience life in a multitude of fascinating ways. Synaesthesia occurs where two normally separate areas of the brain connect up. Spatial sequence synaesthesia, for example, allows some people to see the depth or distance of numbers. For them, the year 1999 would appear smaller and deeper in the page than the year 2020 because 1999 is further away in time than 2020, even if they were typed in the same size of font and were right beside each other on the page.
Some people can smell colour, some taste music, while others can hear the sound of a painting. It is estimated that 1 in 23 people have some form of synaesthesia.
So who sees ‘correctly’, the human or the dog, the butterfly or the goldfish? Who sees numbers or art, or enjoys music, in the ‘right way’? The person with or without synaesthesia? Is seeing colour more correct than smelling it?
There is no correct. There’s just what is for each of us.
This remarkable phenomena stretches more deeply into life than we think, although we don’t notice. Living on the first floor of a building will age a person one thousandth of a microsecond more over their lifetime than someone living on the ground floor. OK, not much to argue and make image decisions over, but it’s true all the same. It’s to do with the way gravity stretches space and time. This is one of the astonishing predictions of Einstein’s general relativity theory.
The closer you are to the centre of the Earth, the more time and space stretches, or warps. A second on a clock ticks infinitesimally slower on the ground floor. It might not seem much of an issue to you and I, but it sort of is.
Apple and Google maps and all location services on your phone rely on GPS satellites, which orbit at about 20,000 km from the ground that you and I stand on, where gravity is significantly weaker. They have to account for this so much that, if they didn’t, Apple and Google maps would be out by about 10 kilometres a day, rendering them pretty much useless within a few hours.
We experience time pass at a particular rate only because of where we perceive it from, not because it is the ‘right’ rate that time passes. If you stood close to the edge of a black hole, you could witness a billion years in the blink of an eye. As far as the laws of physics go, time travel is definitely possible, albeit in a forward direction only.
What is the correct rate of passage of time? There is no correct rate. There’s just what is for us. An alien species on another planet might live hundreds of years for each of our hours, or they might live an hour for each of our hundred years.
Perception shapes experience. These are physical examples, but we can say something similar about our everyday psychological experiences too. We become so fixed in our mindsets about what is true, as if our opinions are absolute facts, but like colour and time, they are rarely absolute facts. Often, they are just opinions – either our own or someone else’s.
I may perceive a frown on your face as evidence that you don’t like what I said and so I changed the subject and leave shortly afterwards. I may spend some of my day worrying about that, interacting differently with people as a consequence. Yet, your frown may have been because you have a blister on your heel and felt the nip as you shifted your weight.
Your experience of me is that I didn’t like you because I didn’t seem to be bothered talking and just left. You spend some of your day worrying about that. In both cases, our perception shaped our experiences. In both cases, we were wrong.
According to social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, our brains are ‘story processors’. We’re always looking to create a story out of any situation. We seek an explanation for things even if it is, in many cases, wrong. But the story we create shapes our experience of the situations and then going forward.
In life, it is our psychological experience that matters, not whether we see green, beige, or ultraviolet, nor find that life moves slightly faster or slower. But perception shaping experience is a fundamental rule that applies right across the board.
So how can we be so sure that what we think we know about people and situations is what is actually true? Physical things like colour and time aside, which don’t matter quite so much in an everyday human context, how do we know that such and such a person behaved in such and such a way because of x, y, or z? The answer is, we can’t. Unless we ask them.
But few of us do. Most of us make a story about the situation, because that’s what our brains seek to do to make sense of things. But these stories are very often wrong or, at the very least, woefully incomplete. It’s ok if the story is a good one, but often it is not.
Some of the skill of life is not to jump to conclusions too quickly and fire off an angry or judgemental email, or say something we might later regret, but to allow our story processing brains time to get a richer grasp of a situation. This can call for patience, or communication, or sometimes kindness.
I frequently use a practice recommended in ‘The Work’, by Byron Katie. When presented with any situation that we have formed an opinion about, ask, “Is it true?” That is, is what I think is the truth actually the truth? Then ask, “Can I absolutely know it to be true?”
The answer to that question is almost always, No. You can’t absolutely know it to be true. You might think you do, but unless you ask the person, you can’t. The third question is, “How do I feel (or act) when I believe the thought?” Often, you might find yourself writing ‘angry’, ‘sad’, ‘annoyed’, ‘tired’, or something else along those lines.
The fourth question is then, “How would I feel (or act) without the thought?” That is, how would I feel if I didn’t believe the opinion I believe? Much of the time, you will feel lighter, more optimistic, more free, especially if the opinion you formed is a negative one. This step points out the psychological freedom of not believing our own thoughts and the opinions we form.
The final step is to turn the first story or opinion around, to find another story or opinion that could be true.
For example, “John is an unkind person” becomes “John is not an unkind person” and we’re led to immediately considering examples of where that is true. It also becomes, “I am an unkind person,” where we have turned it back on ourselves. Have I been unkind in my opinion about John?
The practice is freeing. It frees us from much of our thinking about the world and the situations we encounter. It invariably makes us feel lighter.
Think of it another way. How often has someone formed an opinion about you, or something you said or done, that is wrong? How often has someone misinterpreted your actions?
With practice, it becomes rapid and instantly frees us much of the time from the stories and explanations we form in our minds.
It’s just a tool, of course, but a useful one, like the way a person might practice gratitude to help them find more happiness against the backdrop of life, or positive affirmations to help them focus their minds in a more helpful way.
In Tibetan Buddhism, they have a teaching called ‘Dependent Origination’, that invites students to reflect on the relativity of the everyday world in varying degrees, gradually noticing that suffering is something we experience because of how we think.
Whatever strategy you practice, if at all, and there are plenty, just try to notice that your perception shapes your reality. It might just help to lighten your mind a little bit from time to time.