Does Experience drive Perception? Vice-Versa? Or What?

Perception and Experience – Experience and Expression – and Language

If what we can perceive depends on what happens to us, what is our access to transformation? Maybe what happens to us depends on our perceptions somehow. Where in this loop can humans create substantive change? Is it a closed loop? Clearly we don’t think so. It might be more like a spiral.

We know that experience and perception are not so simple as the cause of an effect. It has been shown that behavior and language are correlated in a similar way. 

Dr. Lera Boroditsky has demonstrated experimentally how speaking and experience are correlated. For example, speaking about how much something weighs can alter, significantly and measurably, our physical ability to lift it. And in her research, she encountered a person who spoke both Hebrew and Arabic, who held prejudices against Jews when speaking Arabic, and prejudices against Arabs when speaking Hebrew. These perceptions were tightly correlated to the language spoken. 

In performance, whether in a discipline of art or science, sports, or in our personal conduct, experience and expression are distinct but inseparable. A virtuoso violinist, a soccer player or a neurosurgeon expresses and experiences the essence of their art in the same moment. 

In that moment there is no thought. Time seems to disappear. There is little or no memory afterwards. It is a distinct state of being. I would say it is total engagement. 

Relating this to the reality of Earth and direct human contact, I have been in several terrifying events in life; and I have performed in some artistic disciplines. In both situations, the state of total engagement has always occurred for me as similar. 

In the case of Experience this total engagement could also be a normal response in the midst of a terrifying event. We sometimes act in ways we consider impossible, such as when a frail elderly woman lifts a car off a child.

In the case of Expression, it takes training. When I performed well, I was always the last to know. I could remember nothing, those hours were missing. Audiences, when things went well, sang my praises. “It was nothing,” I said truthfully.

I would trade much of my lifetime for a few seconds of those missing moments in the total engagement of effective performance. I think this is why people pursue challenging disciplines. It might be related to addiction. But the real reason for this hunger is the impact on one’s way of being. We don’t come out of this state as we went into it.

Training is both practice and expression of a discipline. It isn’t just practice in the sense of preparation: it’s practice in the sense of taking on a certain way of being. Every discipline has its forms, and training is the earnest attempt to match  performance to that form. Rinse and repeat, as they say. Perceptions may be adjusted through the specialized language of a discipline and through physical repetition of its forms. 

With training, form and performance converge, and if they merge at will, we call this mastery. Even in ordinary daily life we often strive to improve our behavior, to lose weight, build confidence, heal addictions, or just get along with family, friends and neighbors. When our efforts are fruitful, the brain scientists tell us, it has to do with this correlation between speaking, perception and experience.

Experience shapes the perceptions on which we act, but experience is not what happens to us, but how we interpret our sensations. Not what we see, but what we think we see. And that interpretation is language all the way down. Perception is in essence what we have said about what happened, not the original happening.

Both experience and expression are fleeting, ephemeral. Perception is more sticky and resistant to change. We might say perception is how we expect experience to be. When it isn’t (as it never is), we’re upset. We can deny or allow the change: in the most literal sense we have a say. Our perceptions, real as they seem, are statements we have made in language. We can cling to the past worldview, or acknowledge and declare new perceptions, opening the way for new experience.

When we strike a balance, as we do in a good conversation, we both change and are changed. Out here with other human beings in a state of engagement with one another, my internal turmoil is quiet. My perception is formless and malleable as pottery clay. I’m open to inspiration. The vessel we might create of ourselves then holds unlimited possibility.

©Copyright 2020 Peter Barus

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