Is Perception Really Reality?

You already know that using images will make your presentations more memorable and compelling. But what does neuroscience tell us about the process of visualizing our world? And what might that mean for today’s professional?

How We See

Here’s what we know so far. Light enters the eye and hits the retina in the back of the eye. The light stimulates specialized cells in the back of the brain (rods and cones) to emit a chemical called activated rhodopsin. This chemical produces electrical signals that are sent, one pixel at a time, to the brain. The raw data sent to the brain must be organized into a recognizable image, making meaning out of a steady stream of images that constantly are changing. The same process of interpreting the world is performed on all the information collected by our senses. We never really “see” anything” we interpret signals based on prior experience.

The Brain is Selective About What it Sees

Studies show that different neurons seem to “like” different types of objects and tend to focus on specific types of images. These preferences may relate to survival, since paying attention to food or faces might be more important in the short run than looking at a pretty sunrise.

Understanding this selectivity has some interesting implications for the human capital professional. Scientists now are able to look at the patterns of firing neurons and identify the single object out of all of the objects in the visual field that is receiving the bulk of our attention at any given moment. This decoding of attention eventually may help us make training or reference materials more compelling and efficient. We may be able to train technicians to develop greater focus on those specific components that are most crucial to their work.

But first, we need to eradicate this misconception about reality.

Is Perception Really Reality?

I often like to go back to the origin of common phrases to gain a deeper understanding of their intent. The phrase, “perception is reality” was coined by a political strategist to win an election by modifying demonstrable facts to fit the party’s agenda. In other words, if the facts aren’t on your side, say anything you like loud enough and often enough, manipulate appearances where you can, and, as he famously said, “the facts won’t matter.” The strategy worked so well in 1988 that the party has doubled down on the concept, until we now find ourselves in the “post-truth” era of “alternative facts.”

One of my experiences that led me to leave a role in large corporation was management’s misappropriating of this diabolical strategy as some brilliant psychological insight. My manager was constantly telling me that “perception is reality.” This mantra was a justification for anyone to form any opinion of me that they chose, without any requirement for factual evidence. After all, what mattered most was how someone was “perceiving” me, and it was up to me to somehow manage “the optics.”

Now we now know that “reality” is a construct that is formed in each brain. It changes every fraction of a second as new information comes in. Our brains sift through the information and select or reject the information that fits our conscious and unconscious priorities, expectations, and biases. So, it seems to me that a good leader, armed with this understanding of how the brain works, should hold people accountable for their perceptions and empower them to change those perceptions to form more productive relationships and make evidence-based decisions.

What Perceptions Should You Challenge?

It’s the start of a new year, and many of us are making great plans for the future. But those plans are built on a set of assumptions that may be completely wrong. I don’t know what those assumptions are, but I know this: Whatever beliefs you are holding most dearly are probably the result of a lifetime of experience, bias, and accident. It’s time for an information upgrade.

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