Most of what you see and think is a lie. I started thinking about this when a friend told me, in no uncertain terms, that someone I regarded highly was “a real jerk.”
“How do you know?” I asked. She explained that she was at an event and overheard him say something that seemed, well, jerky. There was a pause as I sat there, waiting for more evidence, but that was the only encounter she ever had with him. She hurriedly mentioned that a friend of hers’ had also heard he was a jerk. Noticing the incredulous expression on my face, she said:
“Well, I just know.”
Connecting the dots
What my friend was doing was connecting the dots (albeit only two of them in her case). It’s something we all do to make sense of our world. Here are a few famous examples.
From the countless dots in the sky, we select a few, connect them, and almost magically flesh out Orion the Hunter or Pegasus the Flying Horse.
"Do we see reality as it is?"
We’re all wired to connect the dots, but sometimes that wiring can lead to mistakes. There are some wonderful TED talks that describe how we perceive things and show how easily we’re fooled.
In a magician’s talk, he noted how “we are always solving. We are always trying to decode our world.” And he used that impulse to trick his audiences.
In a talk on optical illusions, the founder of an art and science lab showed how we could think of the same information very differently under different conditions.
“The light that falls onto your eye, sensory information, is meaningless, because it could mean literally anything. And what's true for sensory information is true for information generally. There's no inherent meaning in information. It's what we do with that information that matters.
So, how do we see? Well, we see by learning to see. The brain evolved the mechanisms for finding patterns, finding relationships in information, and associating those relationships with a behavioral meaning, a significance, by interacting with the world.”
A cognitive scientist explained our (mis)perceptions in slightly more technical terms in his talk "Do we see reality as it is?"
“When you simply open your eyes and look about this room, billions of neurons and trillions of synapses are engaged. Now, this is a bit surprising, because…the eye has a lens that focuses an image on the back of the eye where there are 130 million photoreceptors, so the eye is like a 130-megapixel camera. But that doesn't explain the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses that are engaged in vision. What are these neurons up to?
Well, neuroscientists tell us that they are creating, in real time, all the shapes, objects, colors, and motions that we see. It feels like we're just taking a snapshot of this room the way it is, but in fact, we're constructing everything that we see. We don't construct the whole world at once. We construct what we need in the moment.”
The man singing falsetto in the ladies room
In short, we take in some bits of information and make up the rest, filling in all the missing pieces.
A story from Loving What Is made me laugh, as it highlighted how ridiculous and misleading our stories can be. It made me think of all the tragicomedies we each write every day, and how our need to make sense of the world can lead us wildly astray.
It also made me think of how simply being mindful of the stories we make up and asking ourselves Is that really true? can help us be happier and more open.
“Once, as I walked into the ladies’ room at a restaurant near my home, a woman came out of the single stall. We smiled at each other, and, as I closed the door, she began to sing and wash her hands. “What a lovely voice!” I thought. Then, as I heard her leave, I noticed that the toilet seat was dripping wet. “How could anyone be so rude?” I thought. “And how did she manage to pee all over the seat? Was she standing on it?”
Then it came to me that she was a man - a transvestite, singing falsetto in the women’s restroom. It crossed my mind to go after her (him) and let him know what a mess he’d made. As I cleaned the toilet seat, I thought about everything I’d say to him. Then I flushed the toilet. The water shot up out of the bowl and flooded the seat. And I just stood there laughing.”
Note: This post was originally titled "The transvestite in the ladies' room." Shortly after I posted it, though, my son texted me asking if I knew that "transvestite" was an offensive term. Really? I thought, I've never heard that.
I admit my first reaction was to dismiss it, thinking that he was just being funny or provocative. Later, though, we talked about and he sent me a link to a discussion on Quora: Is the term "transvestite" offensive? After reading that, I changed the title - not to be politically correct, but to be respectful. I kept the word in the quoted story because it's taken directly from another source and was also written several years ago.
HT to my son for looking out for me - and for educating me.