perception

THE WOOD NOT THE TREES

I met a friend yesterday, who was listening to jazz in his car. Though the instant I said it I realised I was wrong, I identified the trumpeter as Miles Davis. A safe bet, given he and Louis Armstrong are the world’s most well known jazz trumpeters and the song didn’t have that New Orleans feel. Neither was it Miles, whose tone is often melancholy - this was friendly, extrovert. A pause would have led to me accept that I didn’t know the mystery player - but could say who it wasn’t.

Rush for certainty is a classic example of premature closure. We identify what seems to be a gap, and plug it with whatever at hand seems to fit. It’s a smart move at one level - we’re wired for survival and picking up on hazard helps us do that. We start to perceive something in our field of vision within around 50 to 75 milliseconds. In that time, an awareness of colour and boundaries and distance forms. By 200 milliseconds we’ve shifted from perception to recognition. That particular combination of textures, movement, and sounds is a dog – one you may like if it reminds you of a pet, or fear if you were bitten by one of the same breed.

All very well, but that process means we’re wired for picking up sameness and can miss vital differences. Once a label’s in place, we’ve got no incentive to change it. Dogs aren’t the only things we can have prejudices about. If we’re lucky, someone will point it out and we can update our concepts - or get angry with them. Otherwise, it’s like the guy rocking a defiant mullet long after they’ve been even ironically fashionable - something that helps define who we are, that not only others mistake for us but so do we.

As with bad hair, so with beliefs.

A bit of uncertainty helps shake things up. There’s an interesting paradox in all this. Robert Anton Wilson noted “imposition of order equals escalation of chaos”. One classic example is the groundnut scandal in the country we now know as Tanzania - on maps at the time the area was marked Tanganyika. It was an attempt in the 1940s to develop the local economy, instigated by a senior Unilever manager who believed peanuts could produce vegetable oil. What followed was an escapade costing many millions of pounds as tens of thousands of British soldiers and engineers turned up with tractors, most of which never even made it to the intended site. Undeterred, men and money continued to pour into the region. The few nuts grown were flooded away, and the British finally went home leaving behind them land needing a long time to recover thanks to their antics.

If only they’d thought to pay attention to their surroundings, and listen to the locals.

Something similar happens when a professional of whatever sort attempts to attach a pre-fabricated solution in the erroneous belief this is another instance of something they’ve seen before. It won’t be. Even if there are many things the previous and current situation have in common, focusing on those will blind you to their differences. And it’s in difference that the particular tells its truth, if only we can pay attention.

Shaking up patterns can be really helpful. And there are many implicit in what happens between people when one is paid to support the other, as in sessions that get names like coaching or therapy. Quite often such interactions happen in an office or over a coffee. For quite a while now, I find more interesting results emerge from a walk. Around town can be fine, but city settings are by definition blaring with logos and other markers defining ownership of space.

Get out into greener areas, and something interesting happens. Walking in places where physical demarcations are unclear, and personal boundaries too can take on different forms. The physicality of what’s happening is also beneficial - people walking at a pace with a rhythm in an area maybe neither has been before has a different quality than ‘person with intention’ and ‘person with solution’.

We might not be able to label what’s happening to us and around us, but that doesn’t make it bad. The badness is often our felt response to an inability to create such a label. Relax into that distinction like a dog rolling in leaves. Somewhere in your experience you’ll have a reference for what it’s like as perception slides from the unknown to the known. It’s a state worth accessing again. Novelty helps, and one way to encourage our resistance to difference is to make the experience of discovering it something fun.

Feelings work much like perceptions. They arise, followed by whatever linguistic tags go with those emotions: fear, anger, disgust, etc. As neuroscientist Rick Hanson notes “The brain is Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” We skew to the negative because survival requires that we respond, even though much of the unpleasantness we are made aware of at this point in history is fake news. Worse yet, people know that and want more of it, not least because they’re sick of being lied to by experts who won that status by being better at schooling geared largely for rewarding obedience.

Advertisers clamour for our attention, lying about why we should invest the survival tokens we work for in them and not rivals. What truly does matter is the consequences of such acquisition and competition based thinking on a global scale, but so successful have political classes and the branded world been at installing their priorities we’re more concerned about mortgages and holidays and student loans than what’s happening to the planet we share and people we’re invited to hate. And yet - there are glimpses of hope. Younger people intolerant of the intolerance of the older generation. Technologies that can help heal the environment. A surge of interest in alternative ways of thinking and doing, old and new.

It’s a lot to take on, and many prefer not to. Yet, simple choices can make a real difference. Time in the woods can reduce stress, depression, and blood pressure. Children playing among trees increase cognitive skills, manual dexterity, and ability to assess risks. I’m willing to bet that’s because they’re dealing with things as they are, rather than referring to a mental template. The branded world fools you there’s such a thing as consistency and reliability: see logo, feel good, spend money, get stuff. Rinse and repeat. Nature makes no such pretence. Instead it presents pattern, and there’s a big difference between responding to those and mass producing illusory solutions.

All of that loops us back to Wilson and his observation that chaos arises from imposing order. Between the two there’s a space where each possibility can be perceived. In that space is paradox. As Durrenmatt noted, exposing yourself to paradox exposes you to reality - because it’s in those moments beyond language we start to get some sense how much of reality we have a hand in creating.

That realisation will fade, but while it exists the possibility of change can be glimpsed and acted on. If you’d like someone to go on that journey with, to find and hold that space, get in touch. I regularly work with entrepreneurs and artists, coaches and counsellors, mothers and managers, to support them in escaping constraints that limit their awareness and ability to achieve results. Let’s plan your jailbreak together.