Sunday, January 9, 2011

How Perception Shapes Our Sense of Reality

We feel somber on cloudy, foggy mornings. When the sun’s bright over snow, our bodies reflect the sunshine. What a beautiful day! We’re somewhat less aware of the fact that overcast weather is usually matched by the presence of low pressure and contrariwise a blue sky usually means high pressure—and that this affects our bodies too.

We also tend altogether to ignore that which repeats and is therefore unremarkable. Once decades ago I was driving to the airport in Washington, DC at around five in the morning in the dark, taking the Beltway (495 to 395)—the freeway thick, thick, thick with traffic. Suddenly it struck me forcefully that these hundreds, thousands of cars and trucks, roaring together at very high speeds—were all performing perfectly! Hundreds of thousands of tires were holding the air, millions of ball-bearings were smoothly rolling, nicely lubricated in clean oil; similar numbers of pistons translated millions of explosions per second all around me into motion; headlights flawlessly lit our way… And an intuition burst upon me of the vast and entirely ignored mass of human care and virtue that produced this harmonious, high-speed process moving these thousands of people to their destinations.

We notice what changes—the weather. We notice what goes wrong. That which works, and smoothly—that we ignore. It’s a biological arrangement, to be sure. Ever alert for danger. Ever prepared for adaptation. But we black-box whatever smoothly works. How many of us sit down with a paper and take even two minutes gratefully to admire the flawless operations of our digestive system? But if indigestion should happen to strike. Whoa! All bets are off in our rush for the Tums.

A troubled youth shoots down a member of Congress, kills a judge, a child, others; wounds yet other innocents in a Safeway parking lot. An artificial weather system—the electronic media—brings the news instantly. It’s all over the airwaves. The cable channels have cleared the decks. Intense focus—except for the supposedly startling discontinuity of ads—but the odd thing is that we’re so used to ads we don’t find these commercial pauses odd at all. The shooting in Arizona has a much greater impact on our sense of reality than the fact that yesterday—what? some 6.9 billion people?—yes, some 6.9 billion people had perfectly ordinary days, days on which, like the day before, the toilets flushed, the refrigerator kept the cold, the doctor was there for the appointment, the car started, the bucket held water, the streetcars ran, the light switch worked. Curious contrasts. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket? No, not quite yet. For that, presumably, we’ll have to wait until December 2012 when, if the History Channel has read Nostradamus correctly, Armageddon will finally arrive.


  1. Delightful reminder of all that is running smoothly!

  2. I am wondering whether this story not only has a greater impact on our sense of reality, but does our sense of reality also have a greater impact on this story?
    It really seems such a perfect - almost too perfect! - moral lesson. And beyond that, it causes a passionate interest because we know that the moral will be missed.

  3. The feedback loop is certainly present. Spirals come to mind...