So you think you can tell

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

- Pink Floyd — Wish You Were Here

When I was nine or ten, I became troubled by issues of perception. It started when our teacher had each of us tell the class our favorite color. To my amazement, the answers differed.

This bothered me. And conversations with my brother and parents did little to help. They seemed very comfortable with their choices for favorite color, and resisted my attempts to convert them to my favorite — green. They were amused by these attempts… but a touch dismissive too.

Then it hit me. We DID all like green. Of course we did. The problem was that we didn’t see colors the same way.

If, for example, my brother and I were looking at the same object, I might perceive the object as being green, but he might perceive it as being red. This is why we couldn’t agree that this object was the best possible color. Every time he saw something that I perceived as green, he saw red, and so he rejected “green” as his favorite color despite it’s clear superiority.

Likewise, when he pointed out an object that he perceived as green and said, “that’s my favorite color”, I would probably see it as yellow or something, and reject his choice even though we were in complete agreement. Green is the best color.

That explained the disagreement, but there was no way to resolve the issue unless there was a way to truly see the same colors. I wondered where the mix-up was. Was it in the eyes? If so, then transplanting ones eyes would result in a completely bizarre landscape. Everything that had been green before might be red, red might be yellow, and so on…

But maybe it was deeper than that. Maybe it was in the brain. And if that was true, we could talk and talk for a hundred years, asking each other about the “green-ness” or “red-ness” of this particular color, and we’d never get anywhere — our brains misleading us at every turn.

This possibility lead me to an even more disturbing revelation: If we can’t trust our perception of color, then we can’t trust our perception about anything. This was worse than simple things like favorite colors, or favorite foods (no wonder we all like different foods!) This called the very foundations of reality into question.

It occurred to me that almost everything I did, while appropriate in one context, would be terribly inappropriate in a different context. What if, for example, when I thought I’d been called to the front of the classroom to read something, in reality I was out on the playground, reading to empty space as my classmates laughed at me. Worse yet, what if, when I thought I was safe in the privacy of a toilet stall, I was actually squatting on the teacher’s desk.

But then it occurred to me that it was just as likely that my perception was incorrect not just in terms of color, tastes, or time, but difficulty. Maybe reality was actually much more difficult than it seemed to me because of my perception handicap. Perhaps the answers I thought made sense were actually nonsense.

Or, just as likely, the issues I thought I failed to understand were actually far simpler than other people thought they were.  Perhaps my perception of reality was a man made creation — a made-up reality, designed to train me for tasks far beyond the average person. Perhaps one day I’d wake up in a laboratory and meet a crew of scientists and designers that had watched my progress with shared awe and pride. They’d tell me that all the difficulties I’d ever known were ten times as difficult as anything I’d experience from that day forward. They’d explain that everything and everyone I’d known had been a fabrication.

This was exciting, but even at that young age I knew that I was just seeking an escape. An escape from facing the fact, every day, that I had no way to know whether what I was experiencing what everyone else was experiencing.

I never decided on a resolution to this dilemma. I just slowly stopped thinking about it. I slowly came to terms with the fact that there was no way to know to what degree your perceptions are accurate, and that you may in fact be stark-raving mad as far as the rest of the world is concerned, and never know it.

But those fears never fully went away. I still wrestle with it. The difference is that now I wonder if my life is really as good as it seems. How can I have it so good when so many people have it so bad? Maybe something horrible happened last week, last month, or years ago, and my perceptions are so far out-of-sync with reality that I don’t know it.

One Thought on “So you think you can tell

  1. næsemand on March 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm said:

    “Operator, shut down that cyborg! He’s running out of control!”

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