Perspective on Perception

Perspective is the way you look at something. What stance you hold, what angle you take. Perception is how we interpret something. We have certain heuristics in perceiving the world around us, we make judgments from observations based on our own prior experiences, and most of the time, it helps us navigate and understand our surroundings with ease and little effort. On the flip side, our mental shortcuts sometimes biases our perception and skews the reality of what is happening. Perceiving happens all the time; it’s a day to day action that we barely even consciously think about.

What happens when our heuristics lead us to inaccurate perceptions? If we’re self-aware, we can catch ourselves, and ask a friend (or multiple) for their perspective, and we incorporate their take into our own, and create a less biased and more objective interpretation. The tricky part is, sometimes, we’re not aware. You might say, yes, but someone could point it out to you, and bring it to your attention. That’s true, and hopefully that’s what happens most of the time. However, what if someone points out an error in your perception, but you cannot see it? No matter how many people tell you that they don’t share nor understand your interpretations, but you still willfully hold on to your perceptions, and cannot make room for other perspectives? That’s when there’s a major discrepancy in perceptions, which can cumulate to psychosis.

In the past year, I had my first and subsequent experiences of psychosis. During psychosis, one may experience delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking and behaviour, but at its core, psychosis is a loss of touch with reality. As time and space slowly separated me from my acute experiences, I wondered, how do I know which reality is the right reality? We all are born to this world with a certain way of seeing things, and for most people, the way they perceive the world isn’t something they have to question. Before my encounter with psychosis, I took my ability to judge reality without a second thought for granted, it is only after, that I realized how coveted that ability is. It’s difficult for other people to understand the experience of psychosis, let alone relate to it. This makes it hard for individuals having the experience to feel like they can talk about it. When I was made aware that the people around me didn’t agree with my beliefs at the time, it made me feel frustrated, confused, and irritated. One of my doctors made a good analogy once: Imagine that you look out the window, and you see that it is light out, the sun is shining, and you’re enjoying the view. Then when you tell other people to look outside too, wanting to share this view with them, they tell you, “What do you mean it’s light out? It’s night time and it’s dark out right now.” You look out the window again wondering if your mind just played a trick on you, but you see what you saw before, a bright sky. Then you start asking even more people, all of whom tell you the same thing, that the sky is dark. At this point, confusion sets in. No matter how many people try to tell you their perception, your perception doesn’t change. And at some point, you start to feel frustrated and annoyed. In the end, all anyone can do is agree to disagree, but that doesn’t leave you feeling any better.

Something I’ve been struggling with lately is gaining perspective on my perceptual experiences. If I can’t change my perception, can I change my perspective instead? Does changing my perspective then in turn change my perception?

When I was slowly coming out of my episode, having lost all perspective and unsure where to put my next step, a friend said to me, “losing that perspective is the first step to gaining a stronger one, stronger than you ever had before.” This really rings true for me since there’s been some distance between now and then. I had to be open to other people’s perspectives, and not be so stubborn, in order for me to let go of the skewed perceptions, and gain a more accurate and strengthened perspective of my surroundings. So every time I caught myself thinking the same thoughts that landed me in hospital repeatedly, I began to challenge those beliefs. “Is that true?”, “How can you be so sure?”, “What about so-and-so’s opinion? What did they say?” And eventually, though at snail-speed, I started to incorporate those perspectives of the people who cared about me into my own, and with great effort, I came to accept their point of view. Although sometimes my pride and ego still get in the way (How can I be the wrong one? Everyone else is wrong, not me!), leading me down old paths of delusional thought patterns, I have learnt to take new thoughts that come into my head with a grain of salt, and consult a trusted friend or professional. The hardest part I’d say is learning to trust someone else with your brain, and going against the innate nature of trusting yourself. That, I’m still learning to get used to.

In the end, your perception is yours and yours only; no one can change the way you interpret sensory information. However, perspectives, you can change, and with a shift in perspective, the meaning you ascribe to your perceptions can also change. Even for people who don’t have faulty perceptual feelers out there, borrowing another person’s glasses from time to time can give you an entirely different and perhaps more accurate view of your world.

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