David Brooks has an astounding ability to simplify and present important ideas. I pass on a few clips from Chapter 5 - titled "What is a Person?" - of his new book “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.” In chapter 9 he offers an equally lucid presentation of work in the cognitive sciences by Gibson and Proffitt showing how people in different life circumstances literally see different worlds. I've enjoyed reading this book and recommend that you read it.
As we try to understand other people, we want to be constantly asking ourselves: How are they perceiving this situation? How are they experiencing this moment? How are they constructing their reality?
Let me dip briefly into brain science to try to show you how radical this process of construction is. Let’s take an example as simple as the act of looking around a room. It doesn’t feel like you're creating anything. It feels like you're taking in what’s objectively out there. You open your eyes. Light waves flood in. Your brain records what you see: a chair, a painting, a dust bunny on the floor. It feels like one of those old-fashioned cameras—the shutter opens and light floods in and gets recorded on the film
But this is not how perception really works. Your brain is locked in the dark, bony vault of your skull. Its job is to try to make sense of the world given the very limited amount of information that makes it into your retinas, through the optic nerves, and onto the integrative layer of the visual cortex. Your senses give you a poor-quality, low-resolution snapshot of the world, and your brain is then forced to take that and construct a high-definition, feature-length movie.
To do that, your visual system constructs the world by taking what you already know and applying it to the scene in front of you. Your mind is continually asking itself questions like “What is this similar to?” and “Last time I was in this situation, what did I see next?” Your mind projects out a series of models of what it expects to see. Then the eyes check in to report back about whether they are seeing what the mind expected. In other words, seeing is not a passive process of receiving data; it’s an active process of prediction and correction.
Perception, the neuroscientist Anil Seth writes, is “a generative, creative act.” It is “an action-oriented construction, rather than a passive registration of an objective external reality.” Or as the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett notes, “Scientific evidence shows that what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are largely simulations of the world, not reactions to it.” Most of us non-neuroscientists are not aware of all this constructive activity, because it happens unconsciously, It's as if the brain is composing vast, complex Proustian novels, and to the conscious mind it feels like no work at all
Social psychologists take a wicked delight in exposing the flaws of this prediction-correction way of seeing. They do this by introducing things into a scene that we don’t predict will be there and therefore don’t see. You probably know about the invisible gorilla experiment. Re- searchers present subjects with a video of a group of people moving around passing a basketball and ask the subjects to count the number of passes by the team wearing white. After the video, the researchers ask, “Did you see the gorilla?” Roughly half the research subjects have no idea what the researchers are talking about. But when they view the video a second time, with the concept “gorilla” now in their heads, they are stunned to see that a man in a gorilla suit had strolled right into the circle, stood there for a few seconds, and then walked out. They didn’t see it before because they didn’t predict “gorilla.”
In my favorite experiment of this sort, a researcher asks a student for directions to a particular place on a college campus. The student starts giving directions. Then a couple of “workmen”—actually, two other researchers— rudely carry a door between the directions asker and the directions giver. As the door passes between them, the directions asker surreptitiously trades places with one of the workmen. After the door has passed, the directions giver finds himself giving directions to an entirely different human being. And the majority of these directions givers don’t notice. They just keep on giving directions. We don’t expect one human being to magically turn into another, and therefore we don't see it when it happens.
In 1951 there was a particularly brutal football game between Dartmouth and Princeton. Afterward, fans of both teams were furious because, they felt, the opposing team had been so vicious. When psychologists had students rewatch a film of the game in a calmer setting, the students still fervently believed that the other side had committed twice as many penalties as their own side. When challenged about their biases, both sides pointed to the game film as objective proof that their side was right. As the psychologists researching this phenomenon, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, put it, “The data here indicate that there is no such ‘thing’as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe’ The ‘game’ ‘exists’ for a person and is experienced by him only insofar as certain things have significances in terms of his purpose.” The students from the different schools constructed two different games depending on what they wanted to see. Or as the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist puts it, “The model we choose to use to understand something determines what we find.”
Researchers like exposing the flaws in our way of seeing, but I’m constantly amazed at how brilliant the human mind is at constructing a rich, beautiful world. For example, in normal conversation, people often slur and mispronounce words. If you heard each word someone said in isolation, you wouldn't be able to understand 50 percent of them. But because your mind is so good at predicting what words probably should be in what sentence, you can easily create a coherent flow of meaning from other people's talk.
The universe is a drab, silent, colorless place. I mean this quite literally. There is no such thing as color and sound in the universe; it’s just a bunch of waves and particles. But because we have creative minds, we perceive sound and music, tastes and smells, color and beauty, awe and wonder. All that stuff is in here in your mind, not out there in the universe.
I've taken this dip into neuroscience to give the briefest sense of just how much creative artistry every person is performing every second of the day. And if your mind has to do a lot of con- structive workin order for you to see the physical objects in front of you, imagine how much work it has to undertake to construct your identity, your life story, your belief system, your ideals. There are roughly eight billion people on Earth, and each one of them sees the world in their own unique, never-to-be-repeated way.