Perceptions of Reality

First published by White Dragon magazine.

One of the things a great many pagans seems to have in common is that we occasionally admit to seeing, hearing and otherwise knowing things we shouldn’t. I’ve heard plenty of tales of mystical experiences that, if presented in the right context, would probably win the speaker a diagnosis of mental illness if not a nicely padded room. This kind of experience, by its very nature, cannot be rationally explained. However, there are aspects of research into human perception that perhaps casts these pagan experiences in a different light.

Our entire understanding of what the world is, comes to us through our senses. There are a great many things we cannot perceive directly – due to their size, or because they fall outside the spectrums we are aware of. There are also many things we do not perceive consciously – perhaps most importantly, the detailed workings of our own bodies. The senses we depend on give us a very partial view of what is around us. We can’t use magnetic fields to navigate like geese, we can’t hear sounds dogs can pick up, nor smell half of what’s out there, for example.  These limitations alone are significant when considering how restricted we are in perceiving all of the available reality. However, we are more aware than many life forms – plants manage their lives with light perception, and something resembling touch, and very little else so far as we know. Our senses are remarkably complex, allowing us to understand objects relative to each other, to hear spoken words against a backdrop of traffic sound and other such wonders. As Bruce Durie points out, “Our perception goes far beyond the bare sensation.”[i] Perhaps this very capacity for complexity makes us more vulnerable to confusion and error.

The brain spends a lot of time filtering out most of the massive amounts of data it receives and ignoring it. At any given time you are unlikely to be fully conscious of all the information coming from all of your senses, and if you had all of it, you’d probably go mad. We tend to notice sudden changes – of temperature, light levels, movement etc, where small, incremental differences fail to register. We focus on what seems important and this is no doubt an evolutionary tactic designed to keep us alive. If we aren’t going to fight it, feed on it, flee it or reproduce with it, is it worth noticing? In terms of evolution and species survival, probably not. The big changes are the ones most likely to harm us and thus to require our attention. We’re good at focusing – useful for hunting, but sometimes this has interesting consequences. It’s quite amazing what we don’t notice. Daniel Simons, a psychologist at Harvard University, and Daniel Levin of Kent State University, Ohio carried out an experiment in which a person was approached and asked for directions. As they were explaining, two men carrying a door walked between the two, then the querrent asked if the giver of directions had noticed any changes. 50% of those taking part failed to notice they were talking to a different person!  The walk through with the door had allowed the swap.[ii] Part of what’s happening here involves how our short term memory functions, and how little detail we bother to save if we don’t consider it important (we need the stimulus of fight, flight, feed and f… reproduce again). These assessments of significance are not made consciously, so we have no idea what we are forgetting.

In a different study participants were asked to count ball passes whilst watching a film of a ball game. 40% of the participants failed to notice the man in the monkey outfit who wandered through the middle of the game. Once they had been alerted to his presence, they were entirely able to see him in replays of the footage, of course.[iii] This demonstrates that we quite often don’t see what we aren’t looking for. We don’t see people we know in settings where we aren’t expecting them. What else do we miss simply because we aren’t looking, or because we assume it’s not there?

Synesthesia is a condition which poses some interesting questions about the nature of perception. People who have it experience sounds as colours, textures as emotions, or have other strange mix ups with their interpretations of sensory information. In the past this has tended to be ignored as fantasy or led to diagnoses of schizophrenia. However in recent years the condition has been taken seriously and explored at some length. According to Durie there “is growing evidence that crosstalk in the brain between different sensory areas mixes up things more than we might imagine[iv] – and goes on to suggest that our understanding of minor chords as sad, may be a manifestation of the same condition, along with our capacity for metaphor. Does it mean the perception is wrong in any way? Are these crosstalks merely nonsense (like some metaphors), or do they offer an equally, or more valid way of interpreting the world?  Interestingly, there are people who experience the suffering of others as their own: Mirror-touch synaesthesia causes people to sense being touched when they see others touched. Might this be some way towards an explanation for empathy? Does it have anything to do with those more esoteric and otherwise inexplicable experiences a significant number of pagan folk seem to have of picking up other people’s emotions?[v] Does it represent some kind of deeper truth, or point to a brain dysfunction as the reason for some magical experiences?

Why do we perceive as we do? Are Synesthetes awry in some way, or more advanced than the rest of us? Or is it just one of those random, meaningless things? Has it served some purpose in the past, now no longer relevant? Not having the condition, I have no idea what it would be like, but the notion is fascinating.

It is remarkably easy to trick the mind. Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, were able to make subjects feel that a mannequin’s body was their own, streaming visual input through cameras and showing the mannequin being touched whilst the subject was actually touched. Apparently it took a mere two minutes to create the illusion that the mannequin’s body was in fact the subject’s.[vi] I recall at school being told that if you wore glasses to invert your view of the world, you could adapt to it in about 24 hours and function perfectly well. Brain flexibility obviously has its uses, but does it leave us vulnerable to misinterpreting some of our experiences?

 Brain injuries and illness alter our perceptions – fevers, sleep deprivation and drug use can all give us wildly different experiences of what is real. Every time I run a temperature I believe I understand all the secrets of the universe. Is this disease addled madness, or do I genuinely have a few hours of profound insight? Admittedly, what I remember makes no sense to me, but I doubt that proves anything either way. Do we see more during these times, or simply the white noise generated by our struggling brains? Shamanic practices harness this kind of derangement for spiritual purpose, which at the very least offers some way of relating to it that might make it more tolerable.

Everything we ingest can and does affect how we feel, and through the filter of our emotions, how we experience the world. Caffeine. Sugar. Alcohol. Food additives. Chocolate. Fats. There’s even a claim that an excess of coffee can cause hallucinations.[vii] That’s without taking things specifically for mood altering purposes – St John’s Wort, Prozac, opiates etc. The world is full of things we can eat in order to change how we perceive, while experiences of insufficiency – lack of sleep, food and water can equally bring on altered states of mind. So our whole experience of reality is filtered through our senses, affected by our diets and the state of our brain chemistry, and informed by our expectations. Can we really trust our perceptions to be accurate? Do we need them to be? We may have sound mental health reasons for seeking changes of perception – “Hallucinogens – and to some extent cannabis and MDMA – allow us to escape, temporarily, from a reality ruled by logic, ego and time, and explore other aspects of our consciousness.”[viii]  With the implication in the article that this is probably a good thing. It’s worth bearing in mind that drugs can only influence our perceptions by tapping into our existing brain chemistry – we have the capacity for these shifts in perception, we just need to trigger them. Why assume that the chemistry-informed perceptions we have when tanked up on caffeine are somehow more valid than the perceptions we have when seriously drunk or using other mind expanding substances? Or, for that matter, why disregard the reality we perceive when feverish, or hallucinating from sleep deprivation?

Even assuming that we perceive the world in an accurate way, we also have to contend with our memories, which may be wildly inaccurate as well. False memory syndrome is a well documented problem :  It is likely “the act of remembering makes a memory malleable, and therefore susceptible to misinformation”.[ix] As with misleading a person about what they are perceiving, it is disturbingly ease to generate false memories. “Under repeated questioning people will readily construct false memories of realistic events and believe that they actually happened.”[x] There are a few things I have been told about so often that I remember them as though I had been present. I avoid inadvertently creating false memories by thinking about some things in third person, so I can readily tell the two streams apart – being a writer and daydreamer this is an ongoing issue for me.  When thinking about occult experiences, this issue is especially important. It is common practice amongst pagans to discuss unsusbstantiated personal gnosis on the internet, sharing strange experiences. Might we be at risk of unknowingly and innocently changing each other’s memories as we reach for consensus? Are our memories (if we have them) of the supernatural informed by what we read, and hear others talking about? How can we trust that anything has been remembered and recalled accurately? But equally, how can we be sure that our mundane memories are valid? There is a great deal of cultural pressure not to perceive certain things (pixies, unicorns, angels and aliens to name but a few). How do we know that we aren’t carefully tuning them out based on a deep seated belief that they aren’t there, in just the same way that those 40% of people in the baseball study didn’t notice the monkey?

How we understand our perceptions of the world very much informs how we relate to spiritual experiences. Dropping acid and thinking you are talking to god is a cliché, but does that make it any less real an experience? Is it all in the brain chemistry, or is something ‘real’ going on. How do we define ‘real’ anyway? If we have a consensus about what reality means, where does that leave the group of people who didn’t realise the person they ended the conversation about directions with was not the one who had begun it? There was an objective reality, verifiable by others, but not everyone was able to properly engage with it. In this instance, it’s easy to tell what is ‘real’ but frequently that isn’t the case, and all we have to go on is what we can verify by cross referencing with other people. One of the things this area of study suggests is that if we have a shared, agreed upon reality, we can all very happily go along with it, even if it’s totally erroneous!

Much science is informed by the idea that the world is basically a coherent place full of rules, and if we can discover them, it will all make sense. This is, really speaking, a philosophical position, not a truth. We don’t actually know what reality is, and although there are rules that seem to work, sometimes they don’t. Occasionally, when I am feeling especially brave, I dip into the wilder end of New Scientist – speculative science, mad physics, all of it weirder than anything I could imagine. Parallel universes. The power of randomness and chaos.

 “Assuming an external reality exists, however, physics theories aim to describe how it works. Our most successful theories, such as general relativity and quantum mechanics, describe only parts of this reality: gravity, for instance, or the behaviour of subatomic particles. In contrast, the holy grail of theoretical physics is a theory of everything – a complete description of reality.”[xi]

There is so much that we do not know or understand. We do not even know with certainty that the tools we have developed for understanding reality give us true reflections of the natures of things, much less whether we can trust what we perceive, or believe we have perceived.

Entering a pagan worldview takes you away from consensus reality, however you do it. Perhaps the least dramatic shift is into something like Naturalistic Druidry, which sees no need for anything beyond nature. However, the scientifically minded folk drawn to this movement are likely to be more aware of the uncertainness of reality than ever people with more mainstream perceptions are.  For most pagans, moving into a spiritual tradition represents a radical shift in understanding, with huge consequences for how we relate to the rest of the world, and how we understand our own perceptions. Consider some of the tenets that frequently go with paganism – that all life is sacred. That spirit/magic/deity pervades all things, is inherent in the world. That everything is connected. With that view embedded in their psyche, a pagan typically sees the world in radically different ways to a non-pagan.  And as previously discussed, what you expect will very likely colour what you get.

I don’t just see a tree, I see the things that live in the tree, and the wind in the branches, I see if there are leaves, or buds, and what kind of tree it is. I see it as an individual living entity, and as such may well greet it. Others may be aware of some greenery. My experience so far is that I see things that other people do not – birds, animals, plants – things that are very literally present, which most people don’t register at all. I am frequently not focused on anything much, and not assuming too much about what is there to be perceived, which may help. And of course, I see other things – corner of the eye things, glowing things, ethereal things that other people do not see. Are they any less real than all the other things most people don’t see? How do I tell? If the science can give situations in which 50% perceive one thing and 50% another, we don’t even have weight of numbers to create a consensus reality. If such high percentages of people are capable of missing obvious things, it does make you wonder what else goes unregistered.

If you understand the way the things you ingest act on your perceptions, you can work with it – it’s not something that just happens beyond your control. A healthy body, well hydrated with the right amount of sodium and potassium in it, a healthy blood sugar level, and not suffering the effects of uppers like caffeine or downers like alcohol, might be best placed to perceive the world. Ignoring the differences that creep in during times of pressure and altered body chemistry seems both unwise and irrational.  When our bodies are out of balance, our perceptions shift, and we interpret the world accordingly. For example, I find when I have cried too much and lack salt in my body, I become irrational. The less salt I have, the worse the irrationality. I have a friend who becomes paranoid if he imbibes too much caffeine. Such experiences have radical effects on how we see the world and respond to it. Amusingly, religion may also be a factor Dutch Calvinists notice embedded visual patterns quicker than their atheist compatriots[xii]  according to psychologist Bernhard Hommel. Being in control of your perceptions would be a powerful thing. I have no idea if I am, or how I could tell. Being sufficiently out of control that you can see what’s there – not what you think is there – is also very powerful as an idea. Again, how do you tell? We need to be simultaneously absolute sceptics regarding our own occult (and ordinary) experiences, and willing to accept the possibility that they may have validity – be that as an expression of our inner states or as a reflection of an objective (if weirder) reality.

Go out into a wilder, quieter place and explore your perceptions – be open to your senses. There is a great deal to notice, to see, hear, smell, feel, taste even. Once you stop looking for anything in particular and stop assuming what you might experience, there is so much more to be and know. The world around us is not something to tune out and ignore – not on the pagan path. We need to be here and now, feeling, sensing and perceiving as fully as we can. By discarding assumptions, we might see the world afresh, and see it more truly. If I assume there is no point in looking up, I will never see the stars, or the moon. If I assume a city centre to be a dead and soulless place, I won’t see the starlings, the sparrows, the urban trees. We are surrounded by nature, by beauty, wonder and magic, and most of us do a very good job of not noticing any of it.

[i] New Scientist 29 January 2005 Senses special: Doors of perception, Bruce Durie
[ii] Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, vol 4, p 644 (1998) Failure to detect changes to people during real-world interaction Daniel J. Simons and Daniel T. Levin, 

[iii] New Scientist 18 November 2000 Blind to Change, Laura Spinney

[iv] New Scientist 29 January 2005 Senses special: Doors of perception, Bruce Durie

[v] New Scientist, 23 June 2007, Sense of touch is crucial for empathy.

[vi] New Scientist16:09 02 December 2008 Swapping your body becomes a virtual reality,  Helen Thomson

[vii] 15 January 2009  http://www.sciam.com

[viii] New Scientist, 13 November 2004, The intoxication instinct,  Helen Phillips and Graham Lawton

[ix] New Scinetist, 16:14 05 December 2008 Brain quirk makes eyewitnesses less reliable, Ewen Callaway

[x] New Scientist 23 July 1994 When memory plays us false,  BOB HOLMES

[xi] New scientist, 14 September 2007 mathematical cosmos: Reality by numbers Max Tegmark

[xii] New Scientist 17:50 14 November 2008 Religion alters visual perception,  Ewen Callaway

One thought on “Perceptions of Reality”

  1. Much of contemporary Western society is focussed on surface appearance and we are encouraged to see Bigger, Better, Brighter, Newer, Glittering, Colourful, Moving. I think a surfeit of rapidly moving images, such as the soporific effect of many hours of tv a day, deadens our receptivity and atrophies our other senses in favour of immediate visual stimulation.

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