Believing Is Seeing

Posted on May 23, 2010


Let’s talk about seeing.

You think you see with your eyes, but that’s not really quite true.  You see with your mind.

It’s a crucial distinction, and far from being merely philosophical.

Oliver Sacks tells a story about a man who was at one time pretty much as sane as you and me.  Sane, that is, in the usual and commonplace way that you and I understand it, o yes.  A man who because of a brain tumour had lost the ability to see things on one side of anything, of everything.  Who had lost the ability to even conceive of the other side of things.1

If he walked down a street–main street or side street or road not taken–from different directions, he saw two different streets.   And it was two different streets, as far as he was concerned, separate and unassociated streets that he had walked down.  One street did not overlap the other, and could not–therefore–be the same.

When the man sat down at his table, he could see only half of the plate in front of him, and half of the food on it, and the half of the food he saw was the half he ate.   He never reached around or searched for or even missed the food he didn’t see.  He saw a half-moon plate, and a half-moon portion of food upon it, and he accepted that as natural.  It was natural to him.

Yet if the plate was rotated a quarter turn, he would eat half of the food on it again.  (The food somehow, in the rotation of the plate, having appeared–50% of it, at least–on the half-moon plate again.)  With successive rotations of the plate, half, then three-quarters, then seven-eighths of the food was eaten.  Etc.

What the man couldn’t see, somehow, he could no longer even imagine.  But rotate the plate, and he could see and find without use of imagination.

And strangely, and importantly–apart from these wrinkles, apart from these perceptual difficulties (and even some others)–the man was otherwise sane enough to continue to  profess music at at prestigious world-class school, and to conduct a high level chess game in his head, calling out the moves to his opponent, back and forth.

It wasn’t insanity, really.  He wasn’t insane because he was deficient.  He simply–like anybody would–had and felt a visceral refusal to acknowledge what his mind could no longer conceive.  It wasn’t the tumor that was fueling his denial, understand.  The tumor only affected his perception of things, not his rationality.  The denial derived from his human nature, because denial and associated phenomena are all a part of human nature.

Eyes are like cameras.  They can be fooled, but they are more or less objective.

The mind is something else.  It has an agenda–in fact, many agendas, some of which are in conflict with each other.  The agendas shape what you see, whether you acknowledge them or not.  In fact, agendas are often more effective if you do not acknowledge them.

The man described by Sacks was obviously not seeing things quite as they were.   But none of us do.  And we are all as equally convinced that we see things clearly, because at a fundamental level we cannot conceive of what we do not see or know.  At a fundamental level, a whole bunch of things come down to faith and intuition.

Do I really have to say that faith and intuition can be wrong?

Let us say that you are a heterosexual male sitting across the table from a moderately pretty woman on a first date.  The woman finds you to be witty and attractive and has already decided at some level that a second date is probably in order, although she has by no means admitted it to you.  However, her eyes give her away.  Her pupils are dilated while looking at you, and you–although unconsciously–know this.

And what you also know is how very attractive this particular woman is.  Why?  Because her interest excites your interest.  If she was not interested in you–if her pupils were pinpoints of disinterest–she would appear to you much plainer, much less exciting.  Interest raises her a notch in attractiveness, disinterest lowers her a notch.  Your agenda as a heterosexual male shapes the way you relate to her.  Her interest or disinterest in you, being relevant to your agenda, can and does affect the way you see her.  Can and does affect her attractiveness.

The way we think of ourselves also shapes the way that people see us.  And the way that others see us can shape the way we see ourselves.  These kinds of interactions and perceptual back-and-forths are fundamental to the human condition, and inescapable.

Let’s examine a case in point.

One time as a kind of cruel practical joke, a group of college students decided to treat a very plain looking female classmate as if she were beautiful.  Over time the cruel joke took a strange turn.  The female classmate was entirely taken in, and she began to think of herself as attractive, and to act as if she was attractive, which she had never done before.  And in fact from the point of view of the college jokesters, she did in fact become more attractive.  Almost before their eyes the plain woman disappeared and the attractive woman took her place.  The intended joke became instead a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Believing becomes seeing.

I apply this concept to history, to education.

The tales told about Aboriginal people in our society tell Aboriginal people who they are.  The tales are distorted and self-serving, and they come down to us from people who had agendas of their own, and it’s worthwhile, in sorting the testimonies of history, to remember those agendas and how they shape the tales as they are told.

Because if the tales told are ugly, then the Aboriginal people learn to believe that they are ugly, and they in fact become ugly.  If the tales told are not ugly, then this does not happen.  Simple.

The tales told shape the person talked about, and they shape the attitude of the teller.

That is why I believe it is important to tell the truth about Aboriginal or any other people.   Distortions shape what we see in them, and shape what they see in themselves.  Lies do damage.  They can do a lot more than hurt Aboriginal feelings.  They can hurt their souls.  They can undermine their lives.  And the same lies can make racists of the rest of us.

This is no small problem.

And the only solution is telling the truth.

And that little sign over the classroom door, “History is written by the victors.”

Somebody has to take that down.


1. Notice that, despite overwhelming temptation, I do NOT make a cheap joke about conservatives at this point.

The Oliver Sacks tale is the title story from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.