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Divergent Perception

How seeing is perceiving and believing.

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"We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are." This perceptual awareness has spread through human civilization for hundreds of years, but its exact origin is unknown.

Remarkably, current evidence from the field of neuroscience suggests this conception of human reality is an accurate description of our perceptual processing. Everything we perceive is built upon the knowledge we already have.

How Does Perception Occur?

While there is an objective reality, as humans, we are unable to access it fully through our sensory modalities. When we stare at a bright purple flower, our eyes are not seeing color, but electromagnetic energy that our visual systems interpret and perceive as purple.

The purple exists as a tiny portion of a vast spectrum, with one end containing short gamma rays and the other long radio frequencies. Between those extremes is the limited portion of the light that humans perceive.

Understanding how we input information from the outside world and translate it into human thought is a fascinatingly complex process. Raw sensory data enters through one of our sensory channels, and then, via a process of transduction, it is converted into neural impulses. The process is similar for all of our human senses.

The sensory data by itself is useful, but not meaningful until our perceptual system assigns meaning by filling in the voids to create a complete representation. This value is allocated based on our prior experiences in the world. Everything we are perceiving is biased and based partially on our prior assumptions.

Why Does Our Perceptual System Function This Way?

Our brains are wired for function, not accuracy. The utility of our perceptual system is to reduce uncertainty in our world. The human brain wants to predict outcomes in every situation, so it fills in unknown information based on our prior experiences. Early on in our evolutionary history, uncertainty likely meant certain death, so it is easy to fathom how this adaptation occurred.

Therefore, it appears that our brains developed over time to decrease uncertainty in order to increase safety. This seems like an amazing adaptation, as preventing uncertainty results in humans being protected from a myriad of threats.

However, is there a downside to our constructive perceptual system?

Conformity as a Perceptual Influencer

Conformity has a powerful effect on our daily lives. Our constructed perceptions may interfere with our creative thought processes and push us toward conventionality and compliance to sustain certainty. Therefore, we navigate through life perceiving a reality that encourages us to remain "in the herd" to stay protected.

The underlying fear of moving away from the herd is continuously broadcast by our perceptual system in an attempt to protect us from a threat. This fear increases the feeling that we lack control over our lives, which likely contributes to reduced motivation and happiness.

How does this conformity of perception unfold? From school-age onward, many of us are pushed down a prescribed "path of life" that discourages divergence:

Step 1: Go to school.

  • Be involved in numerous extracurricular activities you may or may not enjoy to proceed to step 2 successfully.

Step 2: Go to college.

Step 3: Get a job (repeat as needed).

Step 4: Partner-up (repeat as needed).

  • Note: The realm of acceptable partnering has (thankfully) expanded.

Step 5: Have kids and get them through steps 1 and 2.

  • Note: Your parental worth should be based on the outcome of your child or children's successful navigation through step 2.

Step 6: Retire from paid work and have time to do what you wish.

While this list is a lighthearted attempt to summarize our modern trajectory of life, I include it as many people seem to view these steps as unalterable. Any attempt to veer off the path is too distressing to contemplate. So, they get stuck. Their constructed perceptions leave them unable to change their reality.

What Can We Do?

Dr. Beau Lotto, author of Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently, is at the forefront of research into the neuroscientific underpinnings of human perception. His commentary on why we need to understand our perception is profoundly helpful as we consider how we perceive the world.

According to Dr. Lotto, "only when you have awareness of why you are doing what you are doing can you contemplate doing anything differently." Therefore, we must initially understand that the world we are seeing is based on our created perceptions before we can attempt to see the world differently.

Once we understand how perception is constructed, we should then “choose our delusions" and control our perceptions by constantly questioning why we do the things we do. We should allow ourselves to experience uncertainty and deviate from the norm to see things differently than everyone else.

Dr. Lotto further suggests this deviation from the norm has been the major spark for human progress throughout history—from the French and American Revolutions to the end of communism. To deviate from the herd is to allow your brain to think innovatively.

Final Thoughts

The 20th-century psychologist Jerome Bruner famously stated, "The essence of creativity is figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you already think." Knowledge of how our human perceptual processes function through neuroscience suggests that Dr. Bruner was on the right track to understanding innovation.

As I have written about previously, many of the occupations of the future will likely require significant creative thought. Being able to invoke divergent perceptions by allowing uncertainty may be key to developing those creative processes. Original thinkers who can sidestep conformity traps and become adapted to ambiguity will be at an advantage.

So, look beyond your experiences and travel the world to expand your mind and ignite your imagination. Be willing to question some of your deepest assumptions about why you do the things you do. The creativity may flow if you allow yourself to become unchained from the conforming forces of our modern lives while you open your mind to new doors of perception.

More from Jessica Koehler Ph.D.
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