4 October, 2022

Are Our Perceptions of Reality True?

We all suffer from psychosis.
Psychosis is defined by the state where a person’s thoughts and beliefs are
removed from reality. When people with psychosis experience hallucinations
and delusions, they hear things, see things, or have beliefs, that are not real.
Many of us often hear that voice in our heads. You know the one. That self-deprecating or harsh voice which tells us we are not adequate. “You’re such an
idiot for making that mistake.” “You’re so incompetent.” “You’re not resilient
enough to handle that pressure.” And we believe that voice.
We suffer delusions. We believe that someone is disrespecting us, when in
fact, they may be just too busy or forget to call us back. We believe no one
cares about us. Unless you are a mass murderer, most people have someone
who cares about them. We believe we are not good enough: the imposture
syndrome.
Here’s the difference between a psychotic person and us. When my psychotic
patients’ condition is under control through treatment, they recognize that
those voices are not real. Let me ask you this. How often have you berated
yourself with that critical inner voice, and believed that voice to be true?
Humans are irrational
Research have shown repeatedly that humans are irrational. Worse than that,
much of the time we do not have the self-awareness to know that we are
irrational. We hang on to our false beliefs. Studies show that over 90% of
people believe they are self-aware, but in fact, only 10% of people are.
Our experience in life shapes our perceptions. Our perceptions come from
predictions we make from our environment and sensory input. If we grow up
being constantly put down by others, we may perceive ourselves as less
worthy. If we suffered trauma, we may see the world as a dangerous place.
Our perceptions lead to our beliefs. Our beliefs lead to our emotions. Our
emotions drive our behaviours and choices we make. Our perceptions,
however wrong they may be, become our reality. We then live in this altered
state of subjective reality which can deviate greatly from the objective reality.
“Poor me, boohoo. No one else suffers as much as I do.”
When this happens, we can become divisive. We can become disconnected
with others. We take on the me-versus-them mentality. You have witnessed
these consequences repeatedly from the reactive behaviours during the
pandemic. Here, we also see how people will adhere to their perceptions to
conform with certain groups, resulting in tribalism. Because we are social
animals, this behaviour stems from the basic human need to belong.
Our perceptions are not the truth
Let’s take for example people with red-green colour blindness. What colour do
you think they see when they look at the traffic lights? The way they perceive
the red light is different than those without colour blindness. Does that mean
red does not exist? Reality is reality. It doesn’t care what we think. That “red”
light is whatever colour it is, regardless of how we see it. That colour is simply
a combination of light wavelengths hitting our retina. It is our brain that gives
the colour interpretation.
Our physiology also shapes our perceptions.
Ever notice how when you are hungry or tired, you are less patient and more
apt to jump into conclusions because you lack the cognitive energy to weigh
the evidence? This explains why people are more irritable and pessimistic
when sleep deprived. This demonstrates how our physical state can influence
our perceptions. Here’s another example. Studies show that people carrying
heavy backpacks will perceive hills in front of them as steeper than those
without. The same goes for people who are obese or tired.
On the flip side, our perceptions also shape our physiology. When we perceive
things negatively, negative emotions develop, and stress hormones increase.
This in turn impacts our nervous system, blood pressure, heart rate, even
intensifying sensations of pain.
Six ways to overcome our false beliefs
“I will not die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong.” Sir Bertrand Russel
Awareness of our cognitive biases is the key.

  1. Challenge our thoughts and beliefs. This builds intellectual humility. Having
    intellectual humility allows us to recognize when we are wrong, without
    feeling shame. It not only makes us a better person to be with, but it also
    makes us more resilient.
  2. Recognize that our perceptions may not be the truth. Rather, they are
    merely predictions we make based on our own past experiences.
  3. Try looking at the situation from someone else’s lens. Not only does this
    widen our lens, but it can also help us increase our empathy toward others.
    When we seek to understand the other person, we are also in a better
    position to influence them.
  4. Consider alternate realities. Be willing and ready to let go of your beliefs if
    you see evidence that suggests other truths. Look at your sources of
    information which you base your beliefs on. Are they reliable sources?
  5. Practise mindfulness. It allows us the opportunity to observe our
    perceptions with detachment so we may be less likely to hold on to our
    false beliefs. When we do recognize our false beliefs, mindfulness training
    allows us to let go of our fixations.
  6. Experience awe. Studies show that when people experience awe, whether
    by spending time in nature, looking at a beautiful sunset, or simply
    observing the wonders of the bird outside their kitchen window, it alters
    their perception of the world in a kinder, more positive way.
    If you choose to look at the world through a keyhole, your world will be very
    small. Look beyond, expand your mind through experiencing other cultures,
    listening to other people rather than your own voice, or reading books. Get past
    yourself.

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