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SENSE PERCEPTION Please read through this article.

Think about each of the little things I ask you to consider and then complete question at the end. Perception is often defined as something like “the awareness of things around us through the use of our five senses”. (Note that Aristotle came up with the idea of five senses – can you name them by the way? – but modern biologists actually define many more). Traditionally, the senses were thought of as “the gates to the mind” – and the mind (not necessarily the same thing as the brain) was thought to be where your true self (or your soul) resided. If you had to lose one of your “five” senses, which would you be most willing and least willing to lose, and why. Note that sadists throughout history gave victims of torture this very choice before actually carrying it out!

So, how much do you trust your perception? Do you think that your perception of the desk in front of you, or the view through the window is exactly the same as that of the person sitting next to you (or the teacher shouting at you in the front of the classroom?) If you think it is the same, how can you know? I hope by the end of this cover lesson, you will at least start to question how reliable your senses are. I’m sure you’ve seen hundreds of these types of images before, but have you ever stopped to think about what they actually mean about how your brain works?

Does your perception trick your brain? Or does your brain trick your perception? And does it really matter? Does the brain make a “picture” (I don’t mean just a visual picture here) of your surroundings, slowly and surely, or quickly and with a lot of uncertainty. Do you think it evolved this way for a reason in humans? Visual tricks are the easiest ones to play with your perception (and because I’m not here, it’s the only one I can really give you to try out today). However later on, we’ll try some other tricks with the other “four” senses. In the meantime, here’s another visual trick of perception:

What does this mean about our perception when we are reading things? Do you think this opens up problems when we think we think we are gaining knowledge through reading or language (remember that in TOK, language is one of the four “ways of knowing” – the cornerstones of the whole subject). I think, for you especially, this opens up a very interesting train of thought – do you think people from different cultures who communicate via different languages have a different perception (we already touched on this when we spoke about our “world views” and “mental maps”). Do you think your perception is different when you speak or think in Spanish compared to English? Maybe that’s a difficult question to answer as English and Spanish are both European languages with a similar root and vocabulary. What would your answer be if you compared a speaker of English and Swahili. Can you think of words in Spanish that appear to be untranslatable into English, and vice versa? Can you also think of any sayings or phrases that would be complete nonsense if you translated them literally? Are these things that really affect our perception?

How about memory? Is your mental picture of things that you have experienced recently as good as you think? Are some of the senses better at “recording” experiences than others? Which is the best? Which is the worst? Can you think of something like a detailed image you have perhaps seen every day for a number of years? (For my students this is a mural in the centre of the school). Try to make a sketch of it now (without looking at any photos of it or anything like that). Maybe your memory isn’t as good as you think – although there’s always at least one smart ass in every class. The final thought I want to plant in your mind is what do you think the perception of its surroundings is for an animal (or even a plant or a bacterium for that matter)? One of the most commonly known bits of trivia about perception in animals is that dogs can only see images in black and white. This is “known” to be true, because the retinas of dogs have been studied, and they lack cone cells which allow the brain to perceive colour. They do possess a very high concentration of rod cells which allow them to perceive contrast and shade (and this means that they are able to see much better than us in the dark). What did you learn about vision in a Tyrannosaurus from watching Jurassic Park (or are you too young to remember it?) However, think a bit more deeply about this – the way a dog “thinks” about what it sees is hardly likely to be just like us, except in black and white. For a start, most humans “think” linguistically – i.e. through a verbal conversation in the head (as far as I know, dogs are unable to do this). Have a think about how you are thinking at the moment! Its not true that all people think the same way though, and its not even true that all people always think linguistically. For example “geniuses” like Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr described themselves as being able to think in images. In some people, the brain develops abnormally, and they find themselves being able to think in colours and describe themselves as being able to “see” time. This is called synaesthesia and we will look at it in a bit of detail in future. Some of you may feel you are a little (or a lot) synaesthetic - do you see colours when different numbers pop into your head for example? I hope you enjoyed reading this. Perception is one of my favourite subjects in TOK, and something we should be able to spend a lot of time arguing about. Please get yourself a piece of blank paper now. Put together all your ideas and thoughts from reading this article and write about 500 words to address the question: What is perception, how reliable is it, and how do you think it differs between different individuals. Good luck!