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Perception can be defined as the complex method by which we obtain information about the world around us through the use of our senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. We use these senses to interpret reality, but how does our perception, using the senses, affect reality? The senses seemingly provide a window to the world as it really is yet many times these senses mislead us. This is because perception can be limiting and varies from person to person depending on many different factors that all play a role in affecting the way we perceive things.
Biological influences, biological limitations, and technological advances shape the nature of perception. Biological influences allow us to see, feel, and hear things; yet they are limited in that they only allow us to see, feel and hear so much. For example, a dog can hear sounds that we cannot, just as an eagle can see much further than we can. Technological advances have opened a whole new world of perception. Telescopes and microscopes have allowed us to see things that we have never seen before. With my eyes alone, the moon to me is a yellow shape in the sky, yet if I use a telescope, the moon is revealed to have a landscape of its own. Advances in technology continue to change the way people perceive things because technology continues to advance. In the past people have believed the world to be flat, yet because of science and technology, the people were later able to determine that the world was in fact round. Biological influences and technology are the tools that allow us and help us to perceive the world around us.
However, limitations of perception can drastically alter how we perceive something in the world. These limitations are what cause each person to have different perceptions of the same things. Cultural influences, language influences, expectations, assumptions, and beliefs all affect the way we perceive. For instance, I grew up eating dried seaweed, so I thought it was wonderful. But in elementary school, when I brought it for lunch, I realized that a lot of my friends thought it was absolutely disgusting. Language differences between people can also affect the way we perceive them because we may not like the way a certain language sounds or there may be a specific stereotype for an accent. For example, Southern accents are sometimes associated with being stupid or uneducated, while British accents sometimes represent the opposite-education and sophistication.
Expectations, assumptions, and beliefs all relate to each other through the idea that believing is seeing. If you expect something, assume something, or believe something, then your perception may be swayed into seeing it. Let’s say that a little girl believes in ghosts, than it is more likely that she will see a ghost than a person who doesn’t believe in ghosts. However, to more clearly explain perception, it is important to understand the three major theories of perception: perceptual realism, perceptual relativism, and then perceptual skepticism.
Perceptual realism can be separated into two different types of realism, direct and representative realism. Direct realism is the way in which we perceive material objects, while representative realism is perception according to ideas that represent them. For example, if you are in a classroom and you see the desk in front of you, that is direct realism. You know the desk is there because you see it. However, if you are in the classroom and you know that there are classrooms around your classroom then this perception of rooms around your classroom is representative realism because you cannot directly see them. Perceptual relativism can also be split into normative relativism and descriptive relativism. Normative relativism is the claim that there is not just one way to perceive anything while descriptive relativism goes back to the idea that groups with different cultures, languages, and biological makeup perceive the world in a different way.
The final theory of perception is perceptual skepticism, which is very different from the other two. There is an experiment with fingers that explains the relationship between perception and reality and perceptual skepticism very well. If you hold up your finger and focus on it, there is one finger and a blurry background, however if you change your focus onto the background, you have two fingers that are both blurry. We know that there aren’t two fingers in the real world, yet we see two fingers. This brings the question of what are the two things we are seeing? There are two images of the finger in your mind and so the implication of this is that the blurry fingers that you see are simply images created by your mind. Because of this, it seems that the “in focused” finger is also an image in your mind, and since your finger is like any other objects, all objects are just an image created by your mind. Perceptual skepticism is the idea that all of the objects that we see may just be images that exist within our own mind, and we are mistaking these images for real, physical objects. This leads to the question, how do you know that you’re not just a brain in a vat? Skeptics are those who do not know if there is really a world, and likewise, if there really isn’t a world.
The key point is that perception is the way you perceive things taking in account all the various conditions, circumstances, or limitations. The environment at the time of the observation, and the state of the sense organs are two that are very important. A person who is very drunk will not see the same things as a person that is sober. Another important factor to note is the character of the person (are they nice or mean), and their state of mind (are they angry or happy). If I were really angry one day and someone spilled milk on my new shoes, at that moment, I may think that they are the worse person ever, but if I had been in a better mood, it may not have been that big of a deal to me.
Memory also plays a large part in a lot of the way we perceive. So much of life is based on memory therefore a lot of perception relies on memory. I watched a TV show one time about an innocent man who was accused of raping and woman. He served 11 years in jail because the women said that she was certain he was the man that raped her. Because of memory her perception of an innocent man became one of a man that had raped her. After about 5 years in jail, the real rapist was caught and put in the same jail but for different reasons. They did not know that he had raped the woman, however in the jail he bragged about raping two women to the innocent man. So the man tried to get another trial and when he did, they brought in the second woman who had been raped by that man and sat the innocent man next to the guilty man and asked her to point out who raped her, and she pointed to the innocent man and they put him back into jail. It wasn’t until several years later that the guilty man finally admitted that he had done it. This situation also shows that our perception may also be affected by the reliability of the record of the observation. If other people see it too, then we sometimes think that it must be true. However in this circumstance, both women who were raped could not identify the actual rapist. Memory and other people therefore are not so reliable.
Because there are so many aspects that go into determining how we perceive things, it is impossible to see things from all perspectives, and therefore we make mistakes in our perception. It is important to understand that we cannot understand all sides of a situation. Somebody once wrote that, “By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.” Which means that one person can never know exactly what another person feels. Sometimes they may be able to relate because they may have experienced a similar situation, but they can never feel the same feelings or sensations and therefore all our feelings are independent and isolated.