The Deception of Perception

The deception of perception, what does that mean?  Tell me first, what animal do you see in that picture?

This sketch went viral on social media about 4 or 5 years ago. I was introduced to it on my meditation retreat just recently.

Some say a duck, and some say a rabbit.

If you saw just one animal in the beginning, go back to the picture now and you will see the other one too.

The duck-rabbit drawing was first used by American psychologist, Joseph Jastrow, in 1899 to illustrate that perception is a mental activity, and not just a case of what one sees.

What you see, and how quickly you see both animals, was used as a gauge of how participants’ brains worked and how creative they were.

My brain must be a little old and tired as I only saw a duck.

I was encouraged to find a second animal. I still just saw a duck. Finally I was told there was a rabbit and then, and only then, did I see the rabbit as clear as day.

What this really sheds light on, moving away from my age and tired brain, is that perception is deceiving.

Perception is based on previous experience

What do we mean by that?

First let’s differentiate experience from perception.

An experience is an event of which one is aware. Our perception is the way we identify and interpret sensory information related to that experience.

Our minds try to make sense of the jumble; the jumble of the numerous and disconnected “events” that life throws at us. To do this we often enter into a form of automatic response. We approach situations as we have approached them in the past, expecting the same conclusions. Our perception is, more often than not, coloured by previous experience.

So, coming back to the picture, if we have not seen this image before, we will search for an animal. Once we find the duck or the rabbit, we maybe stop looking.

We don’t expect to find two animals in that picture. Why would we? Our mind has now seen some duck- or rabbit-shaped order to the jumble and so we stop there.

In day-to-day life, we are on autopilot . Invariably we don’t approach things with fresh eyes. We don’t enter into present moment experience. Our experience is coloured by what has gone before.

Did I see a duck first because I live in the duck breeding part of France? It’s possible.  That’s the deception of perception.

You say duck and I say rabbit, which one is it?

Is it both?

I think we all agree it can be both. Why not? But just think for a second about the implications this has on daily life.

It is more than likely that two people in any particular situation can have a varying perception of what is happening.

But if we see a duck in the picture and the person next to us says they see a rabbit, would we tell them they are wrong? Probably not.

So why when someone doesn’t see things the way we do, do we often label them as “wrong” and ourselves as “right” ?

It depends what mood you’re in

Who is to say that just because you saw a rabbit first today, you wouldn’t have seen a duck first had you looked at the picture on a different day?

Whatever is going on in our life at any one time, and whatever frame of mind we are in, will colour our perception of what we encounter along the way.

Mr Jastrow’s research even noted that at different times of the year, the test results seemed to change. Around the Easter period for example, people were more likely to see the rabbit first. Thank you, Easter Bunny!

Apply this to every day life now. We have all had the experience where we reacted more or less calmly to an incident because of whatever mood we were in at the time.

Situations exist as they are. Perceptions come to colour those situations and one simple situation can create a wide range of experiences. This happens across a range of people, but also within individuals depending on their mood at that particular moment.  That’s the deception of perception.

Good news: this is all in your hands!

Mindfulness meditation teaches us to be in the present moment, so not entering the rabbit-hole of automatic reaction to events, and recognising our perceptions as mutable and conditioned.

Your thoughts don’t control you. You control your thoughts.

Don’t believe me?

Go back to the picture now and tell yourself it is a rabbit. What do you see first?

Keep looking at the picture and now say to yourself “duck”. What do you see first now?

We see what we want to see in life, don’t we?

But the great news is that is all in our hands. You can train your mind. That’s what meditation does over time. You start teaching it to be in the present moment.

The pleasure and power of being in the present is not to be underestimated. It opens up the doors to unimaginable opportunity.

Coming back to the autopilot for a minute. Being on autopilot means we miss out on things because we don’t know they are there. We limit our experience to a referential of what has gone before; projecting the past onto the future, and not leaving room for the unknown.  Welcome to the deception of perception.

The rabbit and duck are both beautifully sketched, aren’t they?

How easy it would be to miss out on one of them …

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