How Perceptions Are Made
Look at the image below. To try to make sense of the black and white blobs, your brain sifts through its library of experiences, looking for something it has encountered before that matches or nearly matches what it is currently looking at. If your brain can’t find a match, you are in a state of what brain scientists call “experiential blindness.” The cure for experiential blindness is more context. If you look at this image, for instance, then back at the image below, you will have new knowledge and with that new knowledge, you can’t go back to seeing black and white splotches. With that new knowledge, from now on, when you look at the image below, you will see a coiled snake.
Your perceptions are a function of what you’ve previously encountered. As Neuroscientist and Psychologist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett writes in How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, “Your past experiences—from direct encounters, from photos, from movies and books—give meaning to your present sensations.” That’s the theme of this week’s SIX at 6: this idea that perceptions are shaped by what you’ve previously encountered.
I’ve Slept In A Foxhole
When General James Mattis showed up to record a podcast at the historic Willard Hotel, the host apologized. The chair was uncomfortable, the table was wobbly, and the microphone was set up in an awkward position. “I’ve slept in a foxhole,” General Mattis replied. “I’ve been in tougher circumstances than a hotel room in Washington, D.C.—this is no problem at all.”
Put Things In Perspective
During his rookie season, Kobe Bryant road the bench. In his regular season debut, he got zero playing time. The next game, he went in, had a shot blocked, then turned the ball over, then got subbed out. In his first game against the Bulls and his idol Michael Jordan, he played just ten minutes and scored five points. Like many players used to being the star, Kobe, experiencing a kind of experiential blindness, struggled with his lack of playing time. He was disappointed, trending towards depressed, and then, “I read the autobiography of Jackie Robinson,” Kobe said. “I was thinking about all the hard times I’d go through this year, and that it’d never compare to what he went through. That just kind of helped put things in perspective.”
Unusual And Terrible Register The Same
Dr. Dre’s debut album The Chronic is widely regarded as a masterpiece. It’s hard to find a “Greatest Albums of All Time” list without The Chronic on it. Many artists consider it “the benchmark you measure your album against.” But for a while, the musician Questlove hated The Chronic. The loud drums, the whiny synths, the slow lyrical cadence—“I hated The Chronic when it fist came out,” Questlove said on Quest for Craft. “It took me 18 years to realize…” ”18 years!?!” Malcolm Gladwell intervenes. “I thought you were going to say 18 months.” “No, it took me 18 years. I regret not embracing it at the time.” Less surprising than Questlove’s 18-year aversion to The Chronic, Gladwell had an interesting theory for Questlove’s initial hatred. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” Gladwell says. “Unusual and terrible—in that first moment when you’re just experiencing something—they register the same in your stomach. And so it takes you a while to tease apart, ‘Oh the reason I had that what’s going on here? reaction is just that I hadn’t encountered it before.” I repeat: perceptions are a function of what you’ve previously encountered. Food, for example—everyone has a food they hated at first but then came to love. “You give sushi to a 6-year-old,” Gladwell continues, “they make a face. But you know 100% that one day they’re going to love sushi. They’re not registering that sushi is terrible. They’re registering that sushi is unusual.” They’re in a state of experiential blindness. “And they’re not old enough or mature enough to know that terrible and unusual just feel the same.”
Bridge The Gap
In the early 1980s, hip hop music was not considered music. One record exec said of Run-DMC—hip hop’s first superstars—“it was impossible to get them played on [the] radio. Not hard. Not even in the realm of possibility.” Run-DMC’s producer Rick Rubin said, at the time, Run-DMC’s music “was viewed as this other thing. Not music. Labels told us they didn’t hear it as music. It was too foreign at that point in time for people to understand it as ‘songs.’” Labels and the general public were in a state of experiential blindness. To cure this experiential blindness, Rubin came up with the idea for Run-DMC to pair with rock legends Aerosmith for a reproduction of the band’s song “Walk This Way,” which hit #10 on the Billboard Top 100 ten years earlier. If Run-DMC rapped a song people were familiar with, Rubin thought, “it would bridge the gap. People would be able to hear it as music.” That’s why he specifically chose “Walk This Way,” Rubin said—“I looked for a song that was familiar.” It worked. “Before ‘Walk’ struck in 1986,” Geoff Edgers writes in *Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever, “*hip-hop was a small underground community of independent labels and scrappy promoters. After ‘Walk,’ it became a nation, a genre that would soak itself into virtually every element of culture, from music and film to fashion and politics…‘Walk This Way’ was more than a Top 10 hit. It changed our culture.” And cured our experiential blindness.
Surf Bigger Waves
The big wave surfer Laird Hamilton regularly surfs 40-foot waves. If we looked at the same 10-foot waves, Laird would see tiny waves not worth surfing; I would see massive waves not possible to surf. Your prior experiences, Laird says, shape your current perceptions. If you want to make your stressors or problems seem smaller, he says, conquer bigger stressors and problems. If you want to make the uncomfortable chair feel more comfortable, sleep in a fox hole. If you want put your hard times in perspective, read Jackie Robinson’s autobiography. If you want to introduce a new genre of music, bridge the gap with a song people are familiar with. If you want to make massive waves seem more manageable, gradually surf bigger and bigger waves. Your perceptions are a function of what you’ve previously encountered.