All our knowledge has its origins in our perception” ~ Leonardo da Vinci
The concepts of perception, reality and truth have likely been contemplated for as long as humans have had a sense of self-awareness. Both Eastern and Western philosophic traditions have documented study of these concepts since the 6th century BCE. Plato’s classic cave metaphor – of people chained and raised in a cave, only experiencing shadows of the outside world – is one of the earliest expressions of this contemplation, and speaks to how current knowledge and experience can shape our perception of truth and reality. Today, neuropsychologists understand perception as the organization, identification and interpretation of sensory information. This is thought to occur in two stages – the first being sensory input, such as light striking the retina, or odor molecules triggering olfactory receptors, and the second being the integration of this environmental information with higher cognitive functions such as memory and beliefs.
While I think its easy to recognize that our belief systems, experiences, current interest and mood can affect our perceptions, we are not so good at putting this into practice day to day. After someone is rude or curt with me I rarely think, “I wonder what’s going on in that persons life that has made them irritable?” Instead, I more likely think to myself, “what a b*tch”. Having been in a daze for the past two weeks with my own family challenges, it has made me acutely aware of how little we know about the lives of those we have passing interactions with. In our western culture we ask people ‘how are you?’, expecting to get an answer ranging from fine to good. Similarly, we expect people to act ‘fine-to-good’ and most often, people do. Over the past two weeks I have held in sobs waiting in line at Starbucks, have lived in fear as I made Wholefoods purchases, and have been distracted while stretching it out in yoga. I’m sure my interactions with people haven’t been optimal – I was near catatonic to the chirpy Wholefood’s clerk, who likely thought, “what a b*tch” about me.
I don’t think that the Wholefoods clerk needed to know that my father was recently diagnosed with cancer. I also don’t think that I should have to pretend I’m fine-to-good when I’m tired, sad, lonely or anxious. So what comes in between?
The Nyaya Sutras is an ancient Indian text that discusses the nature of knowledge. One particularly challenging sutra notes, “The attainment of the highest good comes from the right knowledge”. Many Eastern scholars discuss the merits of reflecting and meditation on the truth of ones self to attain ‘right knowledge’. To me this comes down to mindfulness. In the current social context I would say mindfulness is considered being aware of your truth in the present moment. I would propose that its important to then recognize factors that effect your present moment as well as the cultural and historical bearings on your perception.
A way I think of it is that one should consider the modifiable and non-modifiable contributors to your own perception. The non-modifiable factors include your history and memories, your socially and culturally constructed beliefs. You cannot change how past experiences may shape your perception, but there are things that do affect our mood which then adds an additional filter onto our perception. Modifiable factors are the things that can be altered in order to optimize your mental clarity and promote more openness to the present moment. Simple things that most people can relate to would be substances or sleep – a night out partying until the sun rises likely involves alcohol, possibly other mind altering materials, as well as sleep deprivation. I know after a night on call I am not as sharp, patient, or compassionate.
Interestingly, in the past few years, scientific research has shown a strong connection between the gut (small and large intestines) and the brain. Studies have shown a constant, bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis (GBA). The microbial communities of the gut have been shown to play an important role in functions of the brain, including stress response, hormone regulation, memory and mood (see links below for more detail). It has even been shown that the microbiota can directly influence our nervous system by both producing neurotransmitter-like molecules, as well as affect the production and metabolism of these important molecules. One could then say that the trillions of bacterial cells in our guts (not to mention protozoa and fungi), and the balance of their communities, have important implications for our perception. An unhealthy microbiome could contribute to depressive feelings, sensations of anxiety and tension, poor memory and food cravings – all of which can alter our perception of our present moment.
Each one of us is an individual being, but we are living in a very interconnected universe. Our perceptions seem to be a sort of communication between our external environments and the microcosms that live within us. More awareness of the complexity of these relationships could foster more mindful living and compassion for others.
link to GBA and microbiome review article:
Kelly Brogan, a functional psychiatrist explaining the GBA: