Perceptions of Reality

Perceptions of Reality

“Dear Dr. Hanson,

When I reflect on ‘What is true… what is real…?’ I feel very challenged: where to begin when it’s a matter of perception? For example, my husband drives slowly because he feels this is safe. I experience his slowness as unsafe based on my perception relating to other drivers and my understanding of the rules, which he interprets in his own unique manner. Which reality is true? We could enlarge this to political discourse, especially in divisive and challenging times. I don’t want to add aggression to the world, and I struggle to respond mindfully. How do we not create enemy images? How do we determine what is TRUE/REAL when every individual creates their own unique reality based on perception? One cannot measure his objectively when each individual has his own unique subjective reality!

First, let’s make some clear distinctions: I think there is an objective reality – in other words, facts – independent of our descriptions of it. For example, if a tree falls in the forest, it falls in the forest no matter whether anyone sees it or hears it. Whatever is happening in the center of our earth is what is happening there no matter whether anyone knows what it is. What is real and true is real and true even if our knowledge of it is limited and our descriptions are shaped by culture or emotion. Reality is distinct from our perceptions of it. People describe facts in different ways. But just because our descriptions are limited and sometimes erroneous does not mean that facts are not facts!

Each human has a unique individual perception of reality, but reality is universally true. Just because we disagree about perceptions of reality does not mean that there is not an actual reality, nor does it mean that it is not knowable. Think of the zillions of ways that people do recognize reality: Is there water in the glass or not? Is the light green or red? Did the kid do her homework? Also think about the progress in science and education in which humans have gotten vastly clearer in the past few centuries about what is actually true.

Second, some descriptions of reality are more accurate than others. Saying that the earth is round is more accurate than saying it is flat. Saying that the crowds at Obama’s inauguration were bigger than those at Trump’s is more accurate than the reverse. Saying that Russia manipulated our election to favor Trump (as all 17 of our intelligence agencies have concluded) is more accurate than saying they did not.

Over time, people reveal how credible their descriptions of reality are. People who are usually accurate are more credible than people who are not. People who place a high value on telling the truth are more credible than people who routinely lie. People who admit their errors and correct them are more credible than people who do not.

We discover what is true and real by patient observation. You can trust yourself. What do you see? What did you hear? What is happening in front of your nose over time? Who is getting richer? Who is stagnating economically or getting poorer? Is the planet warming up? Are there more severe weather events? Who is trying to count all the votes and who is trying to stop the count? These are things we can see plainly.

Third, a lot of our descriptions of reality are probabilistic, in which we estimate the chances of something happening, such as a car crashing into us on the freeway. The actual chance of something – if we could run an experiment in a jillion parallel universes and then find the average percentage of times it did in fact occur – is an objective reality, but our estimate of this chance is a description of things.

It could be that your husband’s estimate of the chance of an accident is higher than yours. His estimate could be more accurate than yours, or yours could be more accurate than his. But part of what is at issue is an estimate of the chances of a bad event, and clarifying this could be helpful.

It could also be that your husband’s estimate of the consequences of a car crash are more awful than yours. His estimate could be overly tilted toward the negative or yours could be more tilted toward the positive. But another part of what is at issue between you is an estimate of how bad or costly the consequences of an event would be.

Fourth, we have values that are independent of the facts and our descriptions of them. As a general principle, your husband might value caution more than you do. I’m not saying what value is right; reasonable people can have different values; it’s a personal choice, and not a matter of what objective reality is. But just because we have different values, does not mean that we share different realities. We live together in one shared reality, in which we have multiple individual descriptions and values.

This blog post comes from a question submitted to Rick Hanson. To see more answers to great questions like this one, please visit our FAQ page.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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