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Perils of Perception!

What is the world around us? It's a pretty simply question. After all, everything we do, feel and interact with is influenced by this world. So what is it?

It may surprise to you learn that the world isn't what you think it is...actually, it is exactly what you think it is, but not what anyone else thinks it is.

This may sound a little 'Alice in Wonderland', but research has shown that the world you perceive is simply a picture that is painted in your mind based on previous experience and what you predict should be there that gets updated by the tiny fragments of input we receive from our senses.

Yes, I said the tiny fragments of input from our senses because although we get a steady stream of incoming data, most of it is just the bare minimum we need to get by. Take your vision for example. If you were to stare at a spot on the wall and spread your hands wide and slowly bring them in, you can find the extent of your peripheral vision. We therefore naturally assume that we can see everything in front of us with some certainty.

I'm sorry to tell you that what we actually see in any detail is about the size of your thumbnail at arms length, the rest is a combination of fuzzy light received, memory and prediction. This is an area in your eyes known as the fovea which is a tiny flattened section of receivers in the back of your eye and give you the HD view of what's coming in.

Still don't believe me? Ok, here is an experiment called the Flicker Paradigm. In the video below you will see an image (A) flash up and go, then what looks like the same image (B) will flash up again. However, the second one is slightly different. It will flash up with picture A and then B continuous. Your job is to spot the difference between the two. Ready...Go!

Found it? Don't worry if not, I'll tell you what it is at the end. What's interesting though is not whether you found it or not, but what you were doing with your eyes when looking for it. It you could see the picture as a whole, you would be able to find the difference straight away. What you were doing, however, was scanning around the image using the thumbnail size of vision you actually have.

Now, before you found it (if you have) you were completely blind to the difference and it isn't until you finally spotted it (Or I tell you what it is), that it will suddenly be seen and built into your picture of the world. Then you can't help but see it! The answer, is the blue and black box on the bigger boat in the picture. Got it? Now try not seeing it!

So what does this mean for you? Well, we get a lot of our sense of self and self-worth from signals and cues we perceive from the outside world. These cues will mostly confirm what we think of ourselves and either make us feel good about ourselves or feel terrible. These could be smiles or scowls from people walking by, reactions you get from talking to others or even seeing negative omens such as single magpies sitting in a tree.

By understanding that what we perceive is a picture panted by our minds rather than the true reflection of what's happening in the world, we can begin to question all those things that make us feel anxious and worthless. But there's more! There is a part of your brain called your Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) pictured below in dark purple.

This part has many interesting functions, one of which is to make you aware of things that are important to you. There are things in there that are really useful to be made aware of such as dangers from speeding cars, prowling lions and creepy spiders. It also has things like the faces and names of family members and loved ones. Have you ever been in a crowded noisy room when out of nowhere you hear your name being said? This is your ACC filter out all the noise but forcing something that's important to you up into you consciousness.

As well as these, we can also put things on the list of what is important. For example, we may want to buy a new car, say a mini. They suddenly become important to you. So what happens? You start to see them everywhere! It isn't because everyone went out and bought a mini. It is now important to you so your ACC will make you aware of it.

Sounds great right? Well, unfortunately, not everything that is important to us is positive. If we start to feel down on ourselves or anxious to go outside, our ACC will find things to push into your awareness that confirms your thoughts. So if we think that other people don't like us, it will gladly make us aware of every scowl, sly look or slight that will confirm our thoughts. This has the effect of making us feel worse and making it even more important in the ACC. This is how downward spirals start and anxiety persists.

So what can we do about it? Firstly, we can understand that everything we perceive is just a painted image of what we think the world is, and we mostly see just a tiny part of it. Next you can know that if you are feeling down and anxious, your ACC will help you confirm this by showing all the evidence it can find (and ignore all the things that show it as wrong). By knowing this, you can engage your higher intelligent part of your brain and say, 'hold on, is this really what's happening or am I just seeing this because of how I feel and what my ACC is showing me'?

This way, you can start to take control of your perception and experience of reality. If you find yourself in this situation it is easy to switch out of. Simply say that you want to see all the positive things you can, smiles, happy faces and good omens. That way your ACC will show you those instead which will undoubtedly improve your moon and self image. Try it, you will surprise yourself.

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