Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Understanding Iran II - A Distorted View

In order to appreciate the notion that what we as humans actually perceive is often far removed from what is actually there, we need to draw upon recent understandings in the fields of psychology and human behaviour.

Dr. Robert Ornstein is an American psychologist whose pioneering research and work in the areas of brain functioning, consciousness and human nature has transformed the way in which we understand ourselves. Among other things, he has shown that contrary to what we think, we as human beings do not perceive and experience the world as it actually IS, but instead as a distorted picture or caricature of that reality.

According to Ornstein, because of the evolutionary imperative over millions of years for humans to survive, our brains have evolved to filter in only certain information relevant to our survival while ignoring a multiplicity of other stimuli and data which exists in the external world.

Once we have experienced any given thing - whether it be a person, a place, an object or an environment - our minds create visual models and slots those things into simple and generalized categories, which we subsequently re-experience as we understand them in our own minds, rather than they actually exist.

Our views and experiences become “habituated” or “automized”, as kind of natural shortcut to ensure survival. Things like assumptions, biases, and prejudices are all part of the way in which our minds generalize and simplify the world around us, in order to see and react to those things that may be most relevant to our survival. The end result is that we can only see what our minds have allowed us to see at any given time. Whatever we do “see” or “experience” is almost always done so in an incomplete fashion, and as we know it to be in our minds.

Far from being a far-flung theoretical exercise with little relevance to the real world of people and events, these contentions have been confirmed by science and apply to all aspects of human life and human interaction. Because reality feels to each of us so convincing, so rich and so complete, and because we are not otherwise taught about the limitations of our cognition, it seldom occurs to us that our perceptions are incomplete or flawed. We are thus convinced of our views, and are too often compelled to act upon them.

We tend to see a country like Iran primarily in terms of its potential dangers and its propensity for aggression because that is how we have come to identify, categorize and model it, both individually and collectively in our brains. We have become habituated to that generalized perception.

Our distance from the reality of the country itself, its people, and its rich cultural heritage, combined with media coverage filtering in stories that confirm our viewpoints further strengthens our incomplete picture. A country like the United States which has been conditioned by its past experiences with Iran, or like Israel, whose predominant collective paradigm on the outside world is that of threat and the possibility of persecution, are both more susceptible to these processes.

But the cycle of misunderstanding does not end there. It is further heightened by our own actions on the political stage, which are essentially our responses to these entrenched viewpoints, which then play back into, and further enforce, our incomplete and lopsided perceptions.

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