From the standpoint of physics, our perceptions are inherently false. What we see as a cell phone or a tiger are really just clouds of tiny particles held together by powerful electrical forces. But in spite of our disconnect from the true nature of reality, our perceptions are probably the most important condition of being alive.
In many ways “living is perceiving,” with perception allowing us to organize, identify and interpret sensory information. And even though we can’t perceive the “cloud of particles” that make up a tiger when it jumps out from behind a bush in the wild, our “limited” perception still helps us survive.
But perception is more than just assembling bits of information like a computer handling a data feed; perception is a process of creation. What we perceive doesn’t exist “out there” or within. When patterns of light fall on our eyes, we create meaning that was not there before, transforming the sensory information into coherent forms and motions.
The magic of perception is that each person creates his or her own meaning through perception. And although our perception is personal, underlying much of it is a common thread that runs throughout humanity, and may also extend to other animals, as well.
Take the color red. Unless you are color blind, the wavelengths of light that correspond to what we perceive as “red” will produce similar effects on people. For example, people stuck in traffic behind a red car react more quickly and aggressively than if a beige or aqua car is blocking the way.
The power of red also extends to the realm of sexual attraction. Men asked to rate the attractiveness and sexual desirability of women favored those wearing red over those dressed in other colors—say beige or aqua. And women wearing red lipstick in a bar—as opposed to pink or brown—were more likely to be approached by me.
So our perceptions of red are more than a conscious acknowledgement of a color found on tomatoes or roses or blood. There’s a subtle—often unconscious—act of creation that occurs every time red flashes before our eyes. And that is the heart (another traditionally red object) of the problem with our perception.
What we perceive is not always the true nature of reality, and our delusions about the world can lead us down unintended paths (even if that woman in the bar turns out to be your future wife). Unfortunately, the ideas of Newton and Darwin are firmly entrenched in our cultural psyche, ensuring that we are not yet ready to consider reality as anything beyond what we can perceive.
In time, though, we may become more open and receptive to alternative interpretations (or “perceptions”) of reality—ones that understand that perceiver and object are part of the same system. When this idea creeps into the modern mindset, our society will be able to tackle the same questions about the universe raised by ancient scriptures and modern science alike.