Our Town: The power of perception

Dr Tom Ferraro
"Do you perceive this scultpture to be ugly or beautiful?"

Perception is defined as the ability to see, hear or become aware of something through the senses.

Perception is something that is fluid and unconscious. Take your view of life as an example. How do you perceive it? Is it going well or going poorly? Is your glass half empty or half full? Your answer will have more to do with your perception than the reality of your life.

We know we ought to appreciate our lives but how many do?

The power of perception is also demonstrated when you have minor physical symptoms. If you feel yourself coming down with a cold, fever, have aches, pains, a sore throat and fatigue, you will feel anxious and rush to get another COVID test.

Your dreadful symptoms will continue unabated until the moment you get the good news that your test shows that you are COVID-free. Your perception of pain, your aches and your dread will then vanish as if by magic. Your perception of minor symptoms will then be ignored.

The power of perception is felt in many areas. I have listened to beautiful women tell me that they look like Frankenstein. I have heard a professional golfer tell me that when he makes a birdie, it is only because the greens were so pure, not because he hit the putt well.

Distorted perception is by no means limited to lay people. Thomas Kuhn’s classic “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” revealed to us that scientists’ perception of the data is dictated more by the paradigm they believe in rather than the actual data at hand. And it is only with great reluctance will they begin to see things differently.

Comparative psychology reveals the same. In a kitten experiment at Stanford University, the experimenters limited newly born kittens field of vision for two weeks so that they did not see vertical lines. And then when they introduced the kittens to normal environments with vertical things like chair legs, they were never able to perceive verticality and would be forever bumping into the chairs.

The power of perception happened to me three years ago when I was vacationing in Bermuda. I was in someone’s home and was gazing at a paper and pencil sketch of a sailboat that was positioned over the toilet.

I thought to myself what a lousy amateurish sketch it was and decided to look more closely to see who the amateur was that drew it. I investigated the lower right-hand corner of the sketch and with shock I saw the signature of Winslow Homer.

I looked back at the sketch and then said to myself “Yes, of course, wow! what a great sketch this was.” By the way, the photo of that sculpture you see photographed is a rendition of a chimney by architectural genius, Antonio Gaudi.

Sad admission but a true story. This type of misperception happens in the world of art all the time. Proust had a very hard time finding a publisher for “In Search of Lost Times” which many now consider to be the best novel ever written. James Joyce had a hard time publishing “The Dubliners” and so did Nabokov with “Lolita.”

Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t give away his paintings when he was alive. His “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” was done as a gift to Dr. Gachet who was his treating psychiatrist in the South of France. Dr. Gachet took the painting home and his wife exclaimed “What do you want me to do with this ridiculous thing?”

She eventually used it to block a hole in the chicken coop. Today that painting is worth approximately $163 million.

So indeed, perception is a strange thing. Freud’s theories are the only way to understand misperception. He suggested that one’s perception of self and the world is set during childhood.

If your siblings or parents treated you abusively as a child, you will see the world as an extremely dangerous place. If high school bullies picked on you then you will see the world as a place filled with bullies. If as a child, you were called ugly or stupid or fat or skinny or weird, you will perceive yourself that way as an adult.

Conversely, if you were told you were a great beauty in childhood you will feel confident and beautiful all your life.

You will take these self-perceptions as a given, as a feeling that needs no proof. r That is what we mean by perception. And as Freud said, “where Id was, let there be Ego.” Where feelings were, let there be words.

It is no small task to help someone to change self-perception. There is great resistance to change. Both institutions and people strongly new visions, and especially revolutionary vision.

The visionaries who bring a new way of seeing the world are usually hated and often they are killed to silence them. Martin Luther King was killed and so was John Kennedy. And when Sigmund Freud discovered the unconscious, he was not applauded, he was hated.
Patients always resist change.

People want to feel good about themselves, but if they are accustomed to feeling bad about things, they will not give up their masochism easily. Their internal pessimist, their internal saboteur, must be faced and then killed.

Change, even change for the better, takes much time, patience, cajoling, hand-holding and courage, lots of courage.

What the analyst, the patient, the athlete all have is the mystic call to fulfill their destiny. Abraham Maslow referred to this as self-actualization.

But Jean-Paul Sartre, the great existentialist, would say we are “condemned to be free” which implies the terror of self-fulfillment and why people resist it so much.

To become yourself, you must break those inhibiting misperceptions of smallness, weakness and ugliness and then face the task of finding your true destiny. With patience and hard work and support and some luck along the way will get there. It’s never too late to start.

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Dr Tom Ferraro

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