Perception is loosely defined as the process of interpreting stimulus. However, interpretation of any stimulus is always accompanied by reference to our past experiences.
For example, someone who has never seen an automobile would be unable to identify one, but a person who had seen automobiles before would be able to identify them easily. Hence, perception may then be wholly defined as a process of interpreting a present stimulus based on past experience.
Past Experiences Affect Present Experiences
So now that we have a working definition of perception, let’s discuss why it’s meaningful to understand the part it plays in our daily experience. This next statement may be the most significant take-away.
Based on the definition above, everything we witness and take in through our five senses is filtered through our past experiences.
Why is this so important? Because sometimes our past experiences and conditioned preconceived judgments can lead us to misinterpret or misjudge present moment experiences. Consider the famous experiment described by Gene Weingarten in a 2007 Washington Post article: “Pearls Before Breakfast.”
Joshua Bell, a world-renowned musician, quietly surfaced from the subway in Washington, D.C., unkempt in a T-shirt, jeans, and ball cap, and proceeded to play for more than 40 minutes on a priceless Stradivarius violin.
His performance went largely unnoticed while more than 1,000 people passed by, dropping just over $30 in a cup. How many of those same 1,000 people would have or may have in the past, shelled out over $100 per ticket to watch this same man play? Were they led astray by their perception about the people who play on the street? Or was it their perceptions about his appearance?
In this example, it would seem that past experiences related to street musicians led to a missed opportunity to have a better-than-front-row experience listening to a premier violinist demonstrating his craft for a mere donation.
We Don’t Have the Whole Story
Now consider a more practical example. Let’s say that our office hours begin at 8 a.m. We encounter a coworker who consistently shows up at 8:15. Our past experience has taught us to always follow the rules and be on time. As a result, our perception of this coworker may not be a positive one since everyone else on the team seems to be able to honor the 8 a.m. start time.
However, would we perceive the situation differently if we knew she was a single parent with a child whose school doesn’t open until 8 a.m.—and that she has made special arrangements with the supervisor to make up the time by staying late?
As you can see, we must carefully monitor our perceptions of present moment experiences lest we miss once-in-a-lifetime opportunities or harshly and undeservedly misjudge people around us, both known and unknown.
Be Aware of Your Perceptions
Sadly, perception is likely the source of over half of all miscommunication in relationships of every kind. You see, our individual past experiences can become triggers for how we interpret tone, specific words, or even phrases that may bring up painful memories from our past.
Because of this, we must always be mindful of separating this present moment experience from those unrelated experiences in the past. Otherwise, we risk visiting and assigning a range of historical reactions to the present moment that don’t belong.
Our practice for the next few weeks is to become more aware of our perceptions and, much like our thoughts—if we no longer agree with what we first perceived—we can change our minds.
Remember friends, practice makes progress.
#Practices4Life with Rev. Jim Blake are practical tips for living a happier, healthier, and more peaceful life. Some of these you and I will master, while some we will “practice” for the rest of our lives and may never master. The important thing is to keep trying. Because with every effort, we get better. And that is the ultimate goal: to improve and make this life experience better for ourselves and those around us.