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Reality doesn’t go away but how we see it, well that’s something else!

Reality doesn't go away but how we see it, well that's something else! Perception, Seeing, Identity and Mirrors


Every year my Physical Body changes. I’m okay with that ummm kind of, still, the way that my mind’s eye sees my physical body is not really what my physical body look’s like in reality. The physical body that I’m housed in, my own perception might be close to, but probably not the way that other people see me (which we can never truly understand since we’re not in their bodies looking out with their eyes.) Photographs are hard scientific evidence to prove that.

The way we see everything is shaped by our experience, memory and emotion.

Have you ever looked at a photo of yourself taken by another person and thought - 

“Why didn’t anyone tell me I was - insert thought/answer here?” or

“Do I really look like that?”

It’s the proverbial piece of broccoli stuck in your teeth that no one tells you about and then suddenly you see it - it can be shocking.

We know that we are not just a bag of flesh, bones and all the other physiological goop, we are shaped by our experiences with our thoughts and perceptions influencing how we see everything. Some days we might even think that what we see is a close representation of how we look, it happens probably more times than not.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” ― Lao Tzu

What we see from day to day can vary because what we see is influenced by what we feel. For some people, the vision is exaggerated on a daily basis (i.e. anorexia nervosa) and their suffering creates physical symptoms that can ultimately become life-threatening. But this isn’t about medicine, science or labels, it’s about our (probably common) human experience. Obviously, I’m not in your skin but I’d venture to say that all of us at one time or another have experienced a disproportionate view of ourselves, except mostly no one talks about these things.

As a result, we pass judgement on ourselves and can experience our reflection in a myriad of ways - pretty, fat, ugly, flabby, too tall, too short, baby face, wrinkled - fill in the blanks here.

I don’t like seeing myself on television. I don’t like it. - Yogi Berra

We can’t help it, our beingness can be caught up in identity. A few years ago when I was working full-time as a visual artist, I was thinking about how our personal feelings about our reflection can change and decided to photograph some of my portraits of imaginary people from that time. A lot of my art is from imagination. There were pastel drawing exercises on paper of faces. I photographed them from different angles and the results showed some variances. If this could happen with a simple 2d drawing then it made sense that it happens to us. It’s not just all in our heads. It’s all a part of the human experience (unless we extinguish our own species from our planet but that’s another story.)

The differences are subtle in this example but visible.

Exploring Identity

Some people have even compiled daily or weekly photos to create time-lapse videos like Karl Baden did where he condenses almost 25 years into 2 minutes using 2000 plus still photos or like Becky Jane Brown over a 6.5 year period. Karl Baden’s video is not really that dramatic since he was an adult when he started his project, Becky Jane Brown’s is more dramatic simply because she recorded her images during a developmental period of her life. Here is a timelapse that a parent recorded of their child growing up from birth to 18 years.

My own personal view of myself can fluctuate a few times in one day.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” ― Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon

Last year, a friend and colleague of mine came to visit and I showed her some selfies that I took just about a week before she arrived. She looked at them, looked at me and said ‘that doesn’t look like you at all.’ But it was me. Even a series of photos taken in a short time period can show some significant variations and this happens with mirrors too, or from one Mirror to another.

It’s in our nature to search for patterns, to try and sort out what is going on around us. We’re continually bombarded with sensory experiences - much less so when we are faced with the mirror in our home.

By the way, I don’t particularly like looking in the mirror too frequently because my mind’s version of me is younger, thinner and more attractive than what our 3d reality presents. Still, they are a necessity. Like any person who cares about their hygiene, mirrors serve a purpose - I can be sure there isn’t a food particle stuck in my teeth or a crusty something or another in the corner of my eye when I need to leave my apartment. Nothing in my teeth – check. No weird stuff on my clothes or in the corner of my eye – check. Then I exit only to be confronted by the mirror again in the lift (with fluorescent lights aka bad lighting.)

It’s a rare occasion when my mind actually registers a positive image of the reflection of myself in the mirror, luckily my dogs usually are my companions in the lift and my focus in the reflection is towards them. The dogs with their sweetness are always beautiful to me. As it turns out the reflected image in a mirror is not what the rest of the world sees.

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Jenny Jokela artist, gif from her animation Layers of Flesh

We look in the mirror and we are conflicted for good reason, we are not seeing ourselves as others do not because of their experience of reality or other influences. We are simply backwards. We read faces and process visual information in a certain way, some things to do with logic and feeling. Originally I thought it was just my discomfort but really thinking about and understanding that my reflection is backwards made me pause for a moment and I drew a diagram to wrap my head around it. In the backwards reverse-o world of mirrors, a disconnect happens which forces us to reconcile this opposite view in our minds. It’s confusing.

For me this is where it gets weirder because as I mentioned earlier my minds view differs often and is really a feeling – my inner light seems to get lost creating a struggle. I try to get my image to reflect how I think I look and that just isn’t going to happen because it’s backwards. So the struggle is real

Over 20 years ago, John Walter, an artist discovered the True Mirror accidentally when he viewed his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror which was joined at 90 degrees to the backwards bathroom mirror in front of him. He further went on to become the ‘re-inventor of the True Mirror when he created a unified seamless version of the mirror. According to an article published by Science and Non-duality, there is a mention of a ‘device in a Greek text around 40AD, and a Catholic priest patented the idea in 1887’ as a physical invention. There are a couple of other ways you can create this mirror as well.

What was revealed to him at that moment and then to many thousands of people throughout the years that he has interviewed is that the spark of life, seemed to be lost in the reflection of a standard mirror but was seen in the true mirror.

Knowing and Seeing, Perception and Misperception

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” ― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

In the 20th century, some terms were created to classify our tendency to find patterns. It is a function of how we make sense of the world, even though sometimes our interpretation of the patterns are incorrect. At night you wake up to see a spider, looking closer you realise it is simply a speck of dirt. Yet your base instinct kicked in and your mind created something else.

Apache Head in Rocks, Photo Credit: Erwan Mirabeau

Seeing recognisable objects or patterns in otherwise random or unrelated objects or patterns is called pareidolia. It’s a form of apophenia or patternicity, which is a more general term for the human tendency to seek patterns in random information.

Other experts say pareidolia is a consequence of the brain’s information processing systems. The brain is constantly sifting through random lines, shapes, surfaces and colours, says Joel Voss, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. It makes sense of these images by assigning meaning to them - usually by matching them to something stored in long-term knowledge. But sometimes things that are slightly “ambiguous” get matched up with things we can name more easily - resulting in pareidolia, he says.

Even Carl Jung’s synchronicity is considered a form of apophenia.

Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905–1961). Conrad focused on the finding of abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people. However, it is now generally perceived simply as part of our human experience and nature.

“We are fooled by optical illusions - apophenia of the visual cortex - but we don’t take such cognitive errors personally. Magic shows are often enjoyable precisely because we know that we are being tricked. If we embraced our vulnerability to cognitive errors, we would not be so easily caught off guard.” - Bruce Polsen, PhD

The art series that I mentioned earlier is asking us to remember that how we see is influenced by light, shadow, angle and shaped by our own understanding, feelings and human experience. Unfortunately for some, there are some extreme cases where dysmorphia becomes a condition and can interfere with people’s lives. That is the exception, not the rule.

We are not always right or wrong. We, at least not at this time, are not able to jump into another body and view ourselves or anyone else through someone else’s eyes or experience, then pop back into our own body remembering that experience. Although personally, I think it would be an incredible experience even for only a moment. But we can remember that everything is not as it seems, subject to interpretation and there is mystery along with the capacity to at the very least attempt to see through someone else’s eyes even if it is through a visual or interactive artwork, a narrative, a fantastical tale or even a piece of music. In the meantime, we can simply practice empathy and understanding towards ourselves and others remembering it is a matter of perspective.

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Amy Adams
Editor at Conscious Life Space
Amy Adams is the editor of Conscious Life Space a lifestyle blog that focuses on living life consciously. Amy is an entrepreneur, publisher and creative. She hosts Conscious Life Space’s Conversations, a talk show distributed as a podcast. She is also a fine artist, periodic code warrior, supreme lover of dogs, epic gardener, and sometime self-proclaimed yoga goddess.

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