Breaking the Perception Deception

We live in a strange world. We appear to live in the same physical space, but we also live in our individual worlds. This has become glaringly obvious to me since I moved to Cambodia, where I had to radically alter my world view in order to adapt.

When I came here, I bought a motorbike. There was little traffic in Sihanoukville at the time, so I was able to gradually adapt to the radical difference between the Cambodian driving style and the way I was taught to drive. First I had to get over anger, which was a direct result of fear after other drivers didn’t behave as I expected them to. Then I had to observe their driving style and learn how to adapt. This wasn’t easy until it dawned on me that Cambodians learned to drive the same way I learned to ride a bike, which was to just go and keep your focus on the road ahead of you. They hop on a motorbike at the age of about 12 and improvise, just as I did when I rode my bike.

A friend recently told me a story about one of his clients, who bought a shiny new Lexus and got into five accidents within three months. The man blamed Cambodia’s “crappy drivers” and finally sold the car. It didn’t even occur to him that he was the “crappy driver” because he was sure he was driving “right” and Cambodians were driving “wrong.” He was right from a certain point of view, but dead wrong from another perspective and paid the price for his inability to adapt. He got into five accidents in three months while neither my friend nor I has had an accident in eight years.

Breaking the Perception Deception

eye and treeWe all share five senses in common. Let’s take vision as an example. When we look at a tree, we can agree that we are looking at the same object. One of us might be admiring the beauty of the tree while another might be calculating how much money they could make if they cut it down and turned it into lumber. How do we come to such radically different perceptions or opinions about the same object? Our conditioning has something to do with it. We have grown up in a capitalist society and have been conditioned to see things as commodities. A hardcore capitalist sees other people as “consumers” or “human capital” and resources are there to be exploited rather than preserved.

Conditioning is part of the equation, but it doesn’t explain how two people from the same background can end up following radically different paths. One might pursue wealth or power without regard for others, Another might join an environmental organization or go off the grid and embrace a more natural lifestyle. Sometimes a person can go down one path and make a U-turn and follow another path. For example, Francis of Assisi was a rich kid who wanted to be a warrior. The opportunity came when Assisi went to war with Perugia. According to the legend, Francis started having visions after he was captured and was told by God to rebuild the Catholic church. Whatever the truth is, one thing that’s fairly certain is that Francis underwent a radical change and embraced a life of poverty and devotion. He remained a Catholic, but felt the church had strayed from its true mission.

Others undergo less dramatic “conversion” experiences, but there are countless examples of people who “see the light” and turn from a life of selfishness to one of compassion and service. The mechanistic theories of the behaviorist psychologists don’t explain this phenomena, but behaviorism does help explain how we can be manipulated into performing actions that do not benefit us or others.Behaviorists use fear and reward to influence thought and behavior. We’re taught to fear imaginary enemies to draw us into war and we’re fooled into thinking if we drink that brand of beer, hot girls will want to have sex with us.

Humanist psychology arose as a response to behaviorism’s blind spot. There is a “ghost in the machine” that can make independent decisions.

Viktor Frankl quoteWe can explain a lot mechanistically. In the brain, the amygdala is responsible for our “flight or fight” response to danger. For a long time, neuroscientists believed that was all it was good for. There’s an increasing body of evidence that suggests it can also be a mechanism for bliss. TDA Lingo surmised that the goal was to shunt the energy to the frontal lobes, but there’s another theory as well. It’s called “interhemispheric intrusion” and the amygdala can be partially responsible for making one hemisphere of the brain “intrude” on the other. Interestingly, bliss can follow from a negative feeling (or dysphoria) when activity on the right side of the brain spills over to the left.

Frankly, I no longer feel the need to explain the phenomena scientifically. All I know is that “amygdala tickling” works. I learned this when I had a radical “change of heart” while driving to work one day. It was a low point in my life. I’d just discovered Neil Slade’s amygdala tickling exercise and was trying it. I’d felt mild relief from my depression (situational, not clinical) using the technique before, but this time I went from depressed to blissed out in a nanosecond. It stuck for about six months and even now I cope with very challenging external circumstances far more positively than in the past.

Once you become aware of that “space” between stimulus and response, you can begin to get free from the perception deception. Behaviorist psychologists have wreaked havoc by using effective behavior modification techniques. It’s evident everywhere, from advertising to the news and politics. Critically analyzing each bit of information will only go so far. We have to reclaim our independence from the machine and we can only do this by taking charge of the one machine we can have control over: our brain. There are many ways to do this, but the important thing to know is that it can be done.

Further reading:

Overcoming Fear: Part Three
What is Emotional Intelligence?