Believing is Seeing or What You Get is What You See

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one – Albert Einstein

Although Einstein may or may not have said this, it goes well with my theme.

Every now and then I get this vague yearning to return to the lectern. After nearly 40 years of (largely unchallenged) pontificating before captive student audiences, I may be experiencing some sort of post academic withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) from which I can find very little relief – I’m no longer in the classroom; we have no kids left at home to lecture to; Ann has long dismissed my sociological “insights” as “here we go again” blather; and I’m savvy enough not to drive away what few friends I have by unloading on them my pent-up sociological neediness. Fortunately, I do have Andy’s Corner to act as an outlet for these suppressed pedagogical urges.

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I’m about to use my prerogative to slip in a sociological thought or two. The pressure to do this began to build when I stumbled across a 2015 article in Psychology Today by David Ludden entitled How Language Shapes Our World. But it was Ann’s decision to feature horses in her blog that pushed me over the edge.

Before I get the the horsey part of my story, you need to know that the Psych Today article touched on one of my favorite lecture topics – selective perception. Essentially, it can be argued that how we see the “real” world around us is far from “objective.” It is largely a projection of our subjective expectations and is enhanced by our (socially constructed) language. In other words, believing is seeing.

Illustration from MIT News web site: How Expectation Influences Perception (a somewhat more technical discussion of perception).

As Ludden points out, most of us assume that our perception of the world is a passive process. “Light comes into our eyes, sound comes into our ears, and our brains sort it out to create a conscious experience that more or less mirrors reality.” But actually, rather than a passive receiver of information,

… our brains are constantly making predictions about what’s out there. Our perceptions, then, are more about what the brain expects to encounter than what is truly there.

According to Ludden, the visual illusions that are popular on the internet and in Psych 101 classes (and in my own Soc 101 classes I must add!) can be explained in terms of “top-down” perception, in which the world is experienced as the brain expects it to be, unlike “bottom-up” perception, in which the brain represents the sensory input more or less faithfully.

I used this “top down” video in my sociology classes many times over the years. As a cyclist, I found this particular YouTube version to be especially relevant (watch to the very end to see why).

While the way the brain works is essential to understanding how we perceive the world, what fascinates me most as a sociologist is how language interacts with our perceptions. And this brings me to the “horsey” part of the story.

A young Ann with her two favorite horses – Patches (on her left) and Fleet (obviously on her right)

As I revealed in an earlier post, Ann pretty much grew up around horses. And it was her savvy of the horse world (her horse sense?) that inadvertently gave me a down-to-earth example to use in my classes to help students understand how our language and our perceptions of the world around us are intertwined. It all started with the thing pictured here.

I used this “tool” in my sociology classes for thirty-seven years.

I found it on a campus sidewalk when I was a grad student at Colorado State University. I had no idea what this “thing” was, although I suspected it was some kind of homemade wood-working tool, perhaps lost by an art student majoring in wood sculpture. It sat on the desk in my office (or more accurately, “cubical”) until the end of the semester when it was time to box up and take home my belongings.

When Ann noticed this “thing” among the books, pens, and note pads I was unpacking she asked, “Where’d you get the horse hoof trimmer?” So that was what it was! Not only did it have a name, but the name gave me a pretty good idea of how it was used. It turns out that this thing was one of the many tools used by farriers (horse hoof specialists). Suddenly my “thing” became a named object and consequently a part my own objective reality.

A hoof trimmer – aka a farrier’s knife – along with other farrier tools. (Click here for more about the tools and jargon of farriers).

I schlepped this “thing” to my social psych classes throughout my teaching career and asked literally hundreds of students what it was. I can probably count on one hand those who could name this thing or knew what it was used for, and in every case it was someone who had something to do with horses.

The “tool” at work

Of course, just naming something doesn’t fully define it. One of the main points I tried to get across was that the objective “reality” of my horse hoof trimmer could change depending on how it was actually put it to use. For example, if some thug tried to mug me on my way to the classroom I could pull this from my pocket and use it in self defense. It would be then be a weapon. Or, I might find that it is ideal for digging weeds out of my garden, turning it into a weed getter. You get the picture.

Like me, my horse hoof trimmer is now retired. It resides prominently displayed on a book shelf next to my desk. It’s a mute reminder of those classroom moments I enjoyed while struggling to excite students about the relationship between words and the objects that inhabit their worlds.

OK, I have gone on much too long. Thank you for providing some relief from my fleeting bout of PAWS. Do feel free to drop by any time to see my now notorious horse hoof trimmer in all of its objective glory.

My retired horse hoof trimmer amongst other objects on my cluttered book shelves.
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