What is perception? How are you making sense of the world around you? Is that reality? Is it all really there? There is an ancient Indian parable that helps to shed light on this matter:
Long ago, six old men lived in a village in India. Each was born blind… They listened carefully to the stories told by travelers to learn what they could about life outside the village.
The men were curious about many of the stories they heard, but they were most curious about elephants. They were told that elephants could trample forests, carry huge burdens, and frighten young and old with their loud trumpet calls. But they also knew that the Rajah’s daughter rode an elephant when she traveled in her father’s kingdom. Would the Rajah let his daughter get near such a dangerous creature?
The old men argued day and night about elephants. “An elephant must be a powerful giant,” claimed the first blind man. He had heard stories about elephants being used to clear forests and build roads.
“No, you must be wrong,” argued the second blind man. “An elephant must be graceful and gentle if a princess is to ride on its back.”
“You’re wrong! I have heard that an elephant can pierce a man’s heart with its terrible horn,” said the third blind man.
“Please,” said the fourth blind man. “You are all mistaken. An elephant is nothing more than a large sort of cow. You know how people exaggerate.”
“I am sure that an elephant is something magical,” said the fifth blind man. “That would explain why the Rajah’s daughter can travel safely throughout the kingdom.”
“I don’t believe elephants exist at all,” declared the sixth blind man. “I think we are the victims of a cruel joke.”
Finally, the villagers grew tired of all the arguments, and they arranged for the curious men to visit the palace of the Rajah to learn the truth about elephants…
When the blind men reached the palace, they were greeted by an old friend from their village who worked as a gardener on the palace grounds. Their friend led them to the courtyard. There stood an elephant. The blind men stepped forward to touch the creature that was the subject of so many arguments.
The first blind man reached out and touched the side of the huge animal. “An elephant is smooth and solid like a wall!” he declared. “It must be very powerful.”
The second blind man put his hand on the elephant’s limber trunk. “An elephant is like a giant snake,” he announced.
The third blind man felt the elephant’s pointed tusk. “I was right,” he decided. “This creature is as sharp and deadly as a spear.”
The fourth blind man touched one of the elephant’s four legs. “What we have here,” he said, “is an extremely large cow.”
The fifth blind man felt the elephant’s giant ear. “I believe an elephant is like a huge fan or maybe a magic carpet that can fly over mountains and treetops,” he said.
The sixth blind man gave a tug on the elephant’s coarse tail. “Why, this is nothing more than a piece of old rope. Dangerous, indeed,” he scoffed.
The gardener led his friends to the shade of a tree. “Sit here and rest for the long journey home,” he said. “I will bring you some water to drink.”
While they waited, the six blind men talked about the elephant.
“An elephant is like a wall,” said the first blind man. “Surely we can finally agree on that.”
“A wall? An elephant is a giant snake!” answered the second blind man.
“It’s a spear, I tell you,” insisted the third blind man.
“I’m certain it’s a giant cow,” said the fourth blind man.
“Magic carpet. There’s no doubt,” said the fifth blind man.
“Don’t you see?” pleaded the sixth blind man. “Someone used a rope to trick us.”
Their argument continued and their shouts grew louder and louder.
“Wall!” “Snake!” “Spear!” “Cow!” “Carpet!” “Rope!”
“Stop shouting!” called [an] angry voice.
It was the Rajah, awakened from his nap by the noisy argument.
“How can each of you be so certain you are right?” asked the ruler.
The six blind men considered the question. And then, knowing the Rajah to be a very wise man, they decided to say nothing at all.
“The elephant is a very large animal,” said the Rajah kindly. “Each man touched only one part. Perhaps if you put the parts together, you will see the truth. Now, let me finish my nap in peace.” (Peace Corps, https://www.peacecorps.gov/educators/resources/story-blind-men-and-elephant/)
Perception, in short, is figuring out what’s there. It is the way in which we make sense of the world around us. It is the interpretation of our senses, and as such, it is fundamental to our understanding of anything. Thus, life is fundamentally defined by our perception of it, and we ultimately control whether our experiences have a positive or negative effect on us.
The story of the blind men and the elephant helps illuminate two things that perception is ultimately dependent on. First, it is clear that our sensory organs are imperative to this process. From the total input that goes into these sensory organs, we select only a small fraction of what is noticeably significant to focus on. We end up ignoring virtually everything else (and if we can’t ignore enough, we suffer from sensory overload). Second, it is not only our senses that influence our perception. The preconceived ideas that the blind men had about the elephant greatly impacted how they deduced what the creature really was. The importance of this can hardly be overstated. Your ideas are the lens through which you view the world; and this lens is essential to the whole process. Contrary to what some may think, perception can never be completely stripped of the influence of ideas. This is because things aren’t understood first objectively (as things or objects), and then personified. We don’t perceive objective reality first, and then infer intent and purpose. We see what things mean just as fast, or faster than we see what they are¹. “Perception of things as tools, for example, occurs before or in concert with perception of things as objects¹.” This means that if you were to find an object that is used as a tool, you would immediately see it as a tool, and not just as an object – because we interpret the world as something to utilize and navigate through, and not as something that merely exists. We see meaning, purpose and value in things intrinsically. The objects we perceive are not simply there, in the world, for our direct perceiving¹. They exist in a complex relationship to one another and to us, not as self-evidently separate, independent objects. “This is true even for our perceptions of ourselves, of our individual persons. We assume that we end at the surface of our skin… [but] even when we do something as apparently simple as picking up a screwdriver, our brain automatically adjusts what it considers body to include the tool¹.”
The brain combines sensory signals with its prior expectations or beliefs about the way the world is, in order to form its best guess of what caused those signals. The brain relies just as much, if not more, on ideas about the world than it does on the information coming in through our sensory organs. We don’t passively perceive the world – we actively generate it. Everything you are experiencing is what the inside of your mind is like. And thus, every being creates the world in its own image.
¹ Peterson, Jordan. 12 Rules for Life.