Previously published on Yahoo! Contributor Network May 15, 2011
"We see things not as they are, but as we are. Our perception is shaped by our previous experiences." ~ Dennis Kimbro (motivational speaker and author)
Four people sit in a room witnessing the same event, yet come up with four completely different testimonies.
Two sisters, who grew up in the same household, paint very different portraits of their parents.
Twenty students share one teacher, yet describe him twenty different ways.
What accounts for these differences?
Perception. Perception colors our senses and our actions. Perception sometimes distorts or warps our thinking, too, and forever imprints our minds with images that explain why we think the way we do. Perception can also turn lives inside out.
Let me give you an example of how perception affected the life of one little boy.
When Ryan was 2 years old, he suddenly developed a paralyzing fear of mustaches, though at the time his mother didn't know that the reason for his terror was the sight of a mustache. At the age of 2, Ryan couldn't articulate to his mother the reason for his meltdowns. His reaction to seeing a mustache became so horrific that his mother had to stop taking him out in public, because she didn't know what brought on his panic attacks.
When it was time for Ryan to attend school, his mother was still perplexed by his behavior until he started voicing his fear of men with facial hair. And when he became a young adult, Ryan grew a beard because, he told his mother, facial hair was a sign of power.
Not until then did his mother remember the event that triggered his terror. It had taken place when Ryan was two years old, just prior to his outrageous change in behavior. Ryan's mother had left him and his baby sister in the care of one of her best friends. The friend had a boy Ryan's age, a daughter his baby sister's age, and two older children. She was also married.
One evening, the friend who cared for Ryan placed the children around the dinner table. Before cutting the meat into bite-sized portions, the mother brought the platter of meat around the table with her as she placed one uncut slice of meat on the plate of each toddler. She then placed the platter with the remaining meat in the center of the table directly in front of Ryan.
Ryan, who didn't like meat, picked up the uncut portion from his plate and placed it back on the platter.
It became a moment frozen in time, because that one movement caused a series of responses that catapulted Ryan into a state of sheer terror.
From out of nowhere the husband of the friend who was watching Ryan slammed his fist into the table next to where Ryan was sitting. Ryan looked up to see the man with the mustache glaring down at him. Everything from the table bounced, drinks spilled, and all of the little children sitting around the table stopped moving as the man with the mustache flared his nostrils and screamed down at Ryan, "IN THIS HOUSE WE DON'T TOUCH MEAT AND THEN THROW IT BACK ON THE PLATTER!"
Instantly Ryan shook convulsively. The timing of his mother's arrival at that exact moment couldn't have been better.
Ryan propelled himself from the table like a rocket, ran out of the front door across the lawn to his mother, and gripped her legs so hard she had a difficult time removing them from her so she could pick him up. The friend ran out behind Ryan to tell Ryan's mother what had just happened. Both friend and mother were outraged. But they had no idea how that one event would impact that little boy for the rest of Ryan's life.
Ryan had witnessed the man with the mustache explode in rage, all of it directed toward him, for a reason that made no sense to Ryan (nor would it make sense to any other rational human being). That one event probably still impacts that man decades later.
Though Ryan was only two years old at the time of the incident, until his mother remembered the event, she had no idea why her son's reaction to seeing men with mustaches was so violent. Because he was so young, Ryan couldn't have told anybody why he feared men with mustaches, and his mother had no way of knowing why he was paralyzed with fear at the sight of them.
Early impressions impact us.
How many times do we suddenly feel sad or angry without ever knowing why? How many of us have had something happen to us in our formative years that prevents us from moving forward? Scents, sights, sounds, tastes, and even textures can trigger an emotional reaction in us without us ever being aware of the memory that lies buried in our minds or the initial event that caused the reaction.
We may never know not only what happened to us, but also why we react to certain situations with fear or rage. Our perceptions of those early years remain somewhere in our minds awaiting the triggers that cause an emotional response.
Perception affects behavior.
When we were infants, our form of expression prohibited us from accurately conveying our emotions. By the time we were old enough to express ourselves in any meaningful way, we forgot our early experiences. But our experiences would have shown through our behavior. As adults we often have to determine from our behavior why our perceptions are sometimes distorted or exaggerated.
Fortunately, we have the ability to change not only our perceptions, but also our reactions to situations that caused our behavior to disrupt our lives.
What we see is based on what we have seen. What we think is based on what we have thought.
Because we bring with us our own life experiences, whether we are in a classroom, in a grocery store, or at work, each experience provides a different backdrop for our individual abilities to perceive not only what we see, but also what we hear.
Our thoughts about politics, religion, the proper way to raise children -- every thought we have is affected by our individual experiences, memories, and reactions to those experiences and memories. And what makes our experiences unique is our perception of those experiences.
Perception explains what happens when a crime is committed and several witnesses make conflicting statements. They were at the same place at the same time witnessing the same event, but what they saw was different from what their neighbors saw. A tiny woman, for example, might say the thief was over 6 feet tall, while a tall man might place the thief at well under 6 feet. People bring their own perspectives to the crime scene.
Perspective establishes perception.
We sometimes forget that our perception determines our view of life. We can't understand why others don't "see" the world as we see it. Our perceptions, as Dr. Dennis Kimbro points out, are based on our previous experiences. And the combination of our senses imprints our brains with a variety of stimuli so that if we experience a traumatic event at the same time we smell something appealing, for instance, our memory bank will hold the two together in such a way that when we again smell that same scent, our brain immediately feels the connection and responds accordingly.
Our perceptions also motivate our behavior. If you remember cigar-smoking Grandpa with fondness, the smell of a cigar will trigger that same tender feeling even when you are in the presence of somebody who isn't as loving as Grandpa used to be.
The Perception Experiment
If you don't believe that perception can impact your beliefs about the way you see the world, try this experiment:
Blindfold four people and sit them in a circle facing outward in four different directions. Give them each a pad of paper and a pencil. Take off their blindfolds and tell them that they are to write down everything they see, hear, smell, and think, looking only straight ahead. Ask them to be specific. While they are writing, tap different objects with your knuckle or finger nails. Spray various scents or light candles or incense.
The point of this experiment is to show how four different people can be in the same room at the same time and yet experience things differently because of their individual perspectives.
One of my philosophy college instructors conducted a completely different experiment on perception -- verbal perception. He gave one student a picture that none of the other students saw. He then asked the student to describe to four other students what was on the picture using only lines, angles, shapes, and space indicators in his instructions. He was not allowed to tell them anything else about the picture.
As you might imagine, instructions can be vague. None of the pictures accurately conveyed the image that appeared in the photograph, yet one of students' rendition bore a slight resemblance to the photograph.
Before your perceptions cause deleterious effects, examine your experiences and the perspective from which you perceived those experiences. You may discover emotions, memories, and triggers that will reveal to you why you respond to situations the way you do.
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