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Perspective and Perception

Our perception is shaped by our perspective and subject to external influences and feelings, but we can choose a different perspective by using our bodies and brains in unison to give us more options. We can change our point of view by changing our viewpoint.

In art, perspective first appeared in the Renaissance, as a system for making paintings look more like the real world, incorporating distance as well as size. Gradually the term broadened to refer to our mental outlook over time, as well as our visual. Of course, our mental and our visual outlooks are connected through the act of perception, but what are we really seeing?

We've all heard of the story of the blind men and the elephant; an unidentified creature wanders into the Land of the Blind and six wise men are sent to find out what it is. Each blind man approaches the animal and according to what they each find from their respective positions the elephant turns out to be a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a rope or a fan. Each of the six blind men is convinced that he is right and therefore the others are wrong. A different approach, in which they shared their findings and invited input from each other, might have enabled them to put more of the pieces together and identify the elephant.

The elephant is also a metaphor for reality and just like reality it isn't static, it moves and changes and none of us are able to see the whole thing at any one time. We use our perception to connect with the outside world through sight, smell, texture and meaning, but far from delivering us a universally consistent view of the same old elephant our perception is shaped by our perspective.

Our perspectives are influenced by many factors, from external influences such as culture, religion, education or even advertising, to internal conditions such as illness, emotions or the effect of intoxicants. Does it feel different to go to the supermarket before or after lunch? Has the supermarket suddenly stocked the shelves with more delicious food than usual, or do we have a different perspective and are therefore seeing things differently? Do we see the world as it is, or as we are?

The good news is that, whilst we each tend towards a default perspective for each situation in which we find ourselves, we can at any moment choose a different perspective. Taking a moment to step back and look at something from a different angle will help us avoid getting stuck in the same old argument and helps us manage our feelings better. Developing that habit of searching for different and wider perspectives helps us to cope realistically and flexibly with difficulties as they arise. It gives us more options, broadens our experience and paves the way for new solutions.

We can also influence our perspective by altering our perception; literally by changing our viewpoint we can change our point of view. This can be a simple act such as shifting positioning a chair, sitting in a different chair or for meetings that have a history of intractability, try changing the venue. Our bodies and brains work in a unified system of interconnected feedback loops, so what we perceive via our senses affects what we think and vice versa.

"The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress." Joseph Joubert, PenséesScience Articles, 1842

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