What we perceive can be an illusion, to demonstrate count the black dots in the image ?
To see better versions of the illusions on this page just click on an image.
The active ingredient in effective psychotherapy always centres around meaning - changing the meaning of something is what effective counsellors do. Perception, and the way we react to our perceptions, depends on the brain's ability to pattern match to innate and learned knowledge. The inborn patterns - templates - are so fundamental that no reality can exist without nature presetting them into organisms in the first place. Although we talk about pattern matching, in a way it is more accurate to talk about pattern perception. This is because it is not so much that we actually hold a template and seek the match of it, we actually perceive reality through the template. In other words, what we perceive are the meanings that we attribute to certain stimuli (objects).
This was demonstrated startlingly in 1910 when cataracts were removed from people blind from birth. They did not immediately see. Light and functioning eyes were not enough to grant them sight. Gradually the perceptions of what was seen through the eye had to be mapped on to existing patterns of touch and sense of movement. So for everything we become aware of, there is a pre-existing, partially completed, inner template, innate or learned, through which we literally organise the incoming stimuli and complete it in a way that gives it meaning. These metaphorical templates are the basis of all animal and human perception. Without them no world would exist for us. They organise our reality.
Forever Always by Octavio Ocampo is a depiction of a life well lived or of one that will be well lived.
Those who see the older couple can note that they share the Cup of Life (center of the picture) and the crown of fidelity (above the cup). Both of these are symbols of the life they have shared together and the love that fills the cup with a golden light.
The older couple see each other as they were when they were much younger and they courted with serenades while drinking tequila with limes (lower center).
The viewer is able to look into the older man's mind to note that he always sees his chosen as beautiful and desirable.
Those who view the younger couple see that they are looking forward to sharing a cup full of love and happiness. This sharing becomes their crowning achievement symbolized by the ring (crown) they wear.
The young man remembers how his love came out of her house in response to his serenades.
With this understanding we can see how crucial meaning is when helping people who are using inappropriate patterns through which to understand their reality. Obviously if attention is locked by strong emotions of depression, anxiety, or anger that frames the meaning of life for us, then the pattern needs adjusting closer to reality. Patterns of perception in our brain always seek completion in the environment and each perception is 'tagged' with emotion. Emotions are feelings which create distinctive psycho biological states, a propensity for action and simplified thinking styles
They originate in the limbic system and it is here and in the thalamus that all basic patterns are stored. The system is continually on the lookout for physical danger, monitoring information coming through our senses from the environment. It does all this prior to consciousness. The information that comes into conscious awareness arises up to half a second after the reality has been experienced unconsciously. In other words, human beings experience conscious reality after it has actually occurred. It is what happens in that half second that is significant. Information, processed subconsciously at enormous speed, is compared to patterns already existing in the brain derived from previous experience. On this basis the emotional brain decides whether what is happening now is threatening or non-threatening.
Illusionary picture of a ghost house. Ghosts walking here and there in the scary house.
Only after this filtering process has occurred is information sent 'up', if necessary, into consciousness. Our perceptions are always accompanied by emotions, ranging from very subtle to the extremely strong. Emotions exist at a prior stage to language. They are the only language available to the subconscious mind for communicating the significance of patterns. If an emotion is strong, the signal will take the fast track route and trigger a response before the neo-cortex has had time to get involved. As happens, in a dark alley when we run away from possible attackers in the shadows. It also happens in non-emergency situations when certain individuals respond to stimuli as if they were emergencies because they haven't learned to adjust an inappropriate pattern from the past.
When the emotional arousal is not quite so strong, the information can take the 'slow' track which involves the neo-cortex. In such circumstances, in the dark alley, it is the neo-cortex which may decide that the shadows are in fact empty and that the feelings and thoughts which they have prompted need modifying. It is the job of the conscious mind to discriminate, fill in the detail and offer a more intelligent analysis of the patterns offered up to it by the emotional brain. The emotional brain is necessarily crude in its perceptions and the degree to which the fight or flight reflex is activated is the degree to which our thinking becomes polarized - more black or more white. So with emotional arousal there is only a right or wrong, all or nothing, black or white perception. Everything operates out of those two extremes; "high emotional arousal makes us stupid".
Those counsellors and psychotherapists who recognise that people suffering with emotional problems are locked into a restricted view of reality know that their key role is to open up that view. An effective counsellor has the skills to disempower the strong emotional templates that 'lock' their clients into disabling viewpoints and help them access more helpful ones so that they can operate out of a bigger pattern. This is known as reframing.
Adapted from: Farouk Okhai, Human Givens psychotherapy - The Arab Journal of Psychiatry (2010) Vol.21 No.1 Page (9-28)