Tuesday, August 16, 2011

You Are What You See

Are you ever watching a TV show or movie and the screen goes dark and you catch a glimpse of your own reflection on the screen? This usually happens to me when I have been in front of my laptop way too long. I adjust the screen angle to try to get rid of the glare, and there I am; red-eyed and zombie-like staring right back into my own eyes. It is a strange feeling. I wonder about this Computer Sam. What from my PC has gone into me? What of me has gone into it (besides, of course, the drops of my essence undoubtedly absorbed over time through the cracks between the keyboard keys)?
 I was watching a Paul Mooney stand-up special the other night and he said, “You believe what you see.” This simple quotable expresses much more than just the apparent, obvious meaning. What we see the most, the sense data that we choose to let our brain receive, shapes how we view the world around us. We all have our own ideas, opinions, and prejudices. These are all based on prior experiences, real or simulated, concerning the thing we are encountering. The ego makes these mental formations so that we can use our past experiences to remember if we like or don’t like something. As people’s personal preferences range wildly, the way we see the world is through our own subjective perception.
 This may seem like a mundane matter, a simple fact of life that is a waste of time to discuss. However, there are important implications here. One story sticks out in my mind. As Christopher Columbus was making his final approach to the West Indies, it is said that the natives could not see the ships coming. They noticed odd ripples in the waves that weren’t there normally, but as hard as they stared out into the water, they could not spot the ships anchored in the harbor. A shaman from the tribe stayed out on the beach for days studying the abnormalities in the tide until he was convinced that something must be out there. He looked up and suddenly was able to see the boats. He rushed to his fellow villagers exclaiming, “Look, there are three big boats out there!”  And once he said that, there were the vessels in plain view for all to see.
So, why could these people not see something so big and right in front of their eyes? One important job the brain and these mental constructs do is filter out unimportant information. We are constantly inundated with more sensory data than our systems can handle. Forgetting is as important as remembering. If we lost this ability to ignore or forget irrelevant information, we would be constantly bombarded by useless data that we could make no sense of. If the people have no concept of a ship, what a ship is, or what a ship does, then it’s not surprising that the Caribbean natives couldn’t see the ship. If our brains do not understand a thing and have no precedent for what it is or could be, then it will be filtered out of our perception with the rest of our meaningless surroundings.
It is not until the holy man uses the power of observation to determine that there must be something out there that the mystery is unveiled. Once he understands not only are these somethings possible, but must be there, he can see them. Now that one can see them, he can put them in words that the people will understand and thus, the ships enter their understanding and field of vision as well. The ships, both the actual ships and the idea of a ship, had now entered into the reality of these people.
Ideas are powerful things. As this story shows, our ideas and mental constructs literally define the reality we journey through. These ideas start as little seedlings. Like a seed, if it receives no water, sunlight, or attention, it will die. However, the idea is strengthened every time it is proven right. Any time an experience or another voice confirms its validity, we trust it a little more. On the other hand, if life disagrees with it or it is insufficient to describe a situation, we are less sure of it and the idea gets weaker.
I’ll give one quick example to show what I mean by that. I have a friend, let’s call her Carol. Carol is nineteen years old and went to a private high school. She is a nice girl, but sheltered and unworldly to a degree. We were watching Mr. Ghetto’s classic video “Wal-Mart.” Go watch it now if you haven’t seen it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PU9c0j4iOtw&playnext=1&list=PLD880C742FB153CC6
While she was watching this for the first time she remarked to me, “Wow, it’s like black people are a different species.”
Yikes. Now keep in mind, the world of a Catholic school girl in Warrenton, VA is a little different from Mr. Ghetto’s world of picking up strippers shaking their shit in Wally Worlds of New Orleans. But, this is an idea that has been built up over time that lets her allow herself to believe that black people are fundamentally different from white people.  This is born out of her having very little contact with actual African-American people and a lot of second hand exposure to them from TV, music, the internet, etc. Artists want to be seen as extreme in some direction as to be noticed, and the media tends to play up differences between people over similarities, as well as reinforce the same old stereotypes. So, if you don’t have real world experience that tells you that black people are just like anyone else and suffer and struggle with the same problems that we all do, you can be led to believe, as Carol was to some extent, that they are not only different, but potentially dangerous.
So as the old saying goes, you are what you eat, or in this case, you are what you see. If we are constantly feeding our brain the same TV programs over and over again, the ideas and messages of these programs will seep into our subconscious. Through numerous repetitions the same stereotypes are upheld, the same reactions characters have to situations are replayed, and the language used starts to become our own vocabulary. These constructs can become so influential that they become self-fulfilling prophecies and we can interpret any scenario to fit nicely into our preconceived notions.
When our ideas have this much sway over us, they can become dangerous. In the movies “A Beautiful Mind” and “Pi,” the protagonists are brilliant mathematicians who go mad with the obsession to find a pattern in life. Once convinced a pattern is there, like our West Indian shaman, they see the pattern anywhere and everywhere and this only adds weight to the certainty that it must exist. The mind can become obsessed and maniacal in its pursuit of proving their ideas are reality. Also, if such an enthusiastic presenter comes forward with a new idea that seems to solve all our problems and it blends in agreeably to our current mental framework, we will all too willingly and hastily accept. Hitler’s deranged dominance over Germany shows the terrible potential of the desperate attachment to extreme views.
This can also explain why some people claim to hear voices, have religious visions, encounter UFOs or extra-terrestrials, or see ghosts while other people think all of that is a load of hogwash. It is possible that either one’s strong belief allows them to perceive something that others cannot or that the idea of something becomes so powerful in one’s mind that it has to exist and these experiences are produced by the brain itself. For this discussion, it does not matter if the person is seeing into a bigger reality or creating their own, because in either case it is still very real to the mind.
With all that said, all I want you to do is to think about what you feed your brain. Consider all input like food. Is this healthy or unhealthy? Whenever you watch a show, or see a movie, or hear a song, or read something, consider its meaning. What messages or lessons is it trying to get across? Why do I relate to this person more than that person? If you are particularly attracted or repulsed by something, try to figure out why it makes you feel that way.
Asking yourself these questions gives you better control over your mind and enables you to connect with other human beings on a deeper level. If you don’t ask these questions you will forever be a slave to a limited, narrow, and biased view of the beautiful world all around us.  


  1. it's just only my piece of opinion...I wonder that,have u ever thought about, when you put "Carol" as a negative example, you're also judging her by your own perspective (via where she comes from,and what might infulence her, etc)? She might not have the same meaning as you understood.

  2. Thats funny, youre exactly right, Nat. This "Carol" was based on a real person and when I wrote it I was using her as an example that fit but I wasnt even talking about her exactly. Well, she read it and was pretty mad at me. It was my own ideas about who she was that led me to judge her and exploit our friendship. We all make mistakes.