Perception is Reality

I love counter-intuitive results. Every so often you hear of a study that finds something truly surprising, something that runs contrary to your preconceived notions of how things are, and signals clearly, “Pay attention here. You’re about to learn something.”

Let me share one with you now.

If you’ve never seen the video, take a moment to watch it before reading further.

This is a well-known experiment, wherein the observer is given the task of counting how many times a ball is passed between only the basketball players wearing white. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit casually strolls into the centre of the frame, beats their chest, and exists stage right. Around half of people, your intrepid author included, fail to notice the gorilla the first time they view the video.

It sounds impossible that it would be so easy to miss a gorilla in a basketball game, but yet so many of us do. So, what’s the lesson here? It would be easy to draw a conclusion about the dullness of around half of people, your intrepid author included, and wonder how so many could be so foolish as to miss so dramatic an apparition. Yet such an interpretation seems, somewhat ironically, to miss the point.

We are hunters, historically speaking. Apex predators, built for target acquisition and ruthless efficiency and focus. We can use our forward facing eyes to zero in and track prey - the ability to throw rocks at distant targets might be close to as fundamental a human trait as one could find. And so, as times move on, and our goals become more complex, this hunting circuitry is not abandoned, but instead embellished, the core traits getting baked deeper and deeper into our brains, quite literally, as the more modern brain elements expand around the edges, enveloping the most ancient pathways at the centre of our minds.

And so, we humans are fundamentally goal-seeking creatures. Once we have an aim, and it is no accident we use that same word from our hunting past, we focus on the target, simultaneously blurring out everything that’s not relevant. The world has been divided into two categories - relevant and irrelevant, and the decisive principal is our purpose.

When we are asked to count basketball passes, we focus on those passes, and discard everything else. In fact, it seems fair to say that our level of focus on the task is proportional to the loss of focus on everything else. And so, the story of not seeing the gorilla, is also a story of seeing every detail of the movement of the ball.

In the world where we count passes, there is no gorilla. Not subjectively, at least, and so, from the point of view of the individual, it simply does not exist. Watch the video, however, trying to spot a gorilla and lo, a gorilla is brought into being, manifested from the aether.

Did your act of focus create the gorilla? Objectively, no. The gorilla pixels were in the video long before you watched it. But, subjectively, yes. And as far as your experience of life goes, subjectively is all there is. In this subjective sense, our objectives have changed reality itself.

This concept, of course, reaches beyond the gorilla. The goals we set, quite literally, define what we see. To us, anything irrelevant to our goals does not exist - we cannot, quite literally, perceive it, no matter how obvious it may be to someone else. We do, however, see the detail of the things that are relevant. In fact, there are two more categories hidden inside the relevant - tools and obstacles - those things which help us on our quest, and those which impede it. And so, by deciding our aims, we conjure tools and obstacles from the world which previously did not exist.

In a world where I’m trying to become a tennis pro, I live in a world of sponsorships, coaches, and evolving rivalries. In the world where I’m trying to write a Physics paper, there are fewer umpires, but a lot more charm quarks. I mean, they’re there on the court as well, but they don’t seem to help my topspin.

Through the mechanism of choosing my goals, I have created two entirely different worlds which I could inhabit. Of course, choices like this are borne out daily. There really are tennis pros, and there are physicists, and although they objectively live in the same world, they, through the choice of their goals, experience it profoundly differently.

However, it’s not as though our goals appear from nothing, fundamental entities with no precursor. Instead, they are the product of our values. In fact, it could be said that we approach our goals to the degree to which we align our actions to our values.

If I value expanding the field of Physics, I approach the goal of publishing my paper insofar as I act in such a way that someone who values expanding the field of Physics would act. The paper appears as a by-product, a physical artefact emerging from the process of integrating my personality.

So, most concisely, we’ve seen that our reality is altered by our perception, which depends on our goals, which emerge from our values.

Imagine, then, what could pop into your reality were you to nurture positive values and pursue meaningful and uplifting goals. How many wonderful things might appear if you cultivate a value of gratitude? How many tools and opportunities might appear if you set a goal of improving the lives of those around you? In this way, you really are the creator of your own universe.

Change your values, and change the world.