Seeing through the Perceptual Filters of Language and Narrative

Meditation enables one to gain access to a clearer, truer perception and experience of reality

Linguistic Relativism: How Language and Culture Alter Perception

The Eskimo (Inuit and Yupik peoples) of the arctic Tundra regions are said to have as many as 50 or 100 – or even, according to some sources, thousands – of distinct words for “snow.” A 1991 article by Anthony C. Woodbury from the University of Texas, Austin, Texas, lists at least 32 distinct Inuit lexemes (i.e. root words) for “snow.” The article describes how the Inuit have separate words for such phenomena as “fallen snow on the ground,” “soft, deep fallen snow on the ground,” “crust on fallen snow,” “fresh fallen snow on the ground,” etc. What this information suggests is that when you or I look out at a frozen arctic landscape, we might only see vast tracts of land blanketed by snow. However, an Inuit Eskimo looking at the same landscape would be able to easily distinguish a variety of clearly differentiated types of snow, which they would be able effortlessly to recognize, because the differentiation is built into their very lexicon.

The Inuit Eskimo people are said to have 50 – 100 words to describe snow

Even more interesting is the research that has been conducted into the perception of color by different cultures around the world. For example, it was discovered that the Himba people of Namibia did not have different words for the colors green and blue. Whereas western cultures typically categorize colors into around eleven broad groupings (i.e. red, yellow, green, blue, etc.), the people of the Himba tribe only had five such color groupings in their language. The Himba term Buru is used to apply to various shades of green and blue, while the distinct term Zuzu is used collectively to describe darker shades of most colors. Scientists approached members of the tribe with color tests, wherein they were asked to identify the colors of different colored tiles displayed on a chart. It turned out that the Himba people had no trouble identifying a slightly different shade of green on one chart, scarcely perceptible to most people, but had trouble distinguishing between similar shades of blue and green, which would have been obvious to most westerners. It appears that their perception of color was influenced, even dictated, by their color lexicon. Because they had different words for different shades of color in their language, minute differences in color shading were readily apparent to them. However, because they grouped green and blue under the same linguistic term, they had a harder time distinguishing between these separate hues of similar shade.

Languages can alter our ability to recognise or describe colours

In a blog post from the University of Melbourne, Australia, the author suggests that “[l]anguages can to a certain extent alter our ability to recognise or describe colours, and indeed smells too.” (Hartel, Jasmin. Different cultures see different colours. Scientific Scribbles. The University of Melbourne). Indeed, there is research to suggest that a number of ancient cultures had no concept of the color blue! In the 19th century, the British scholar William Gladstone observed that in Homer’s epic The Odyssey, the sea is frequently described as being “wine-dark” rather than blue. In the article The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World, the author, Erin Hoffman, notes that “there is no word for ‘blue’ in ancient Greek.” The author continues to point out that:

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine, honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze.

It gets stranger. Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow. Xenophanes, another philosopher, described the rainbow as having but three bands of color: porphyra (dark purple), khloros, and erythros (red).

The conspicuous absence of blue is not limited to the Greeks. The color “blue” appears not once in the New Testament, and its appearance in the Torah is questioned … Ancient Japanese used the same word for blue and green … and even modern Japanese describes, for instance, thriving trees as being “very blue” …

Hoffman, Erin. The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World. Clarkesworld Magazine #76, January 2013

Apparently, because the color blue is relatively rare in the immediate natural surroundings of most ancient peoples, there was no distinct name for blue in many ancient cultures. It seems that the first culture that did have a distinct word to describe the color blue were the Egyptians, who also happened to be the only culture with the technology to manufacture blue dyes. The awareness of the distinct color blue spread across the world only upon coming into contact with the Egyptians and their lexical differentiation of the color.

In Homer’s epic The Odyssey, the sea is frequently described as being “wine-dark” rather than blue

As pointed out by Erin Hoffman in her article in Clarkesworld Magazine:

… famous demonstrations like this selective attention test … emphasize the power our cognitive functions have to suppress what we see. Our brains are pattern-recognizing engines, built around identifying things that are useful to us and discarding the rest of what we perceive as meaningless noise. (And a good thing that they do; deficiencies in this filtering, called sensory gating, are some of what cause neurological dysfunctions such as schizophrenia and autism).

This suggests the possibility that not only did Homer lack a word for what we know as “blue” – he might never have perceived the color itself. To him, the sky really was bronze, and the sea really was the same color as wine. And because he lacked the concept “blue” – therefore its perception – to him it was invisible, nonexistent. This notion of concepts and language limiting cognitive perception is called linguistic relativism, and is typically used to describe the ways in which various cultures can have difficulty recalling or retaining information about objects or concepts for which they lack identifying language. Very simply: if we don’t have a word for it, we tend to forget it, or sometimes not perceive it at all.

Ibid.

It would appear, therefore, that words shape and limit our perception of reality. In some ways, words blind us; in others ways, they focus our attention. Language defines, limits and alters perception – even hypnotically so. A hypnotic suggestion, after all, is a word or phrase implanted deep in one’s subconscious which, in a state of waking consciousness, is interpreted as an unquestionable fact – as self-evident or axiomatic. Thus words and language circumscribe and define how we perceive reality – limiting and defining what we pay attention to, observe, identify, notice, remember or, in fact, what is apparent to us.

Expanding Consciousness

If we recognize that our concept of reality is limited by our immediate sensory perceptions – in other words, that “seeing is believing” – which holds true, at least at an unconscious/subconscious level for the vast majority of the global human population – then it becomes evident that we are locked inside a perceptual prison – very often without even realizing it. To break free of this prison, one has to become aware of the reality that exists beyond one’s capacity to perceive it – beyond one’s perception and even comprehension of it. In other words, we have to expand our consciousness and awareness of reality.

When we experience any kind of stress or undertake any kind of engagement of life – any kind of action or activity, in essence – it narrows our focus of attention. This is a natural consequence of the human stress response – the engagement of the human sympathetic nervous system in “fight-or-flight” mode. As part of this response, one experiences elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels in the bloodstream along with a number of other physiological changes. One of these is the narrowing of one’s focus of attention, which is necessary to deal with any imminent threat to one’s life, as determined by the stress response.

Because activity and stress narrow one’s focus of attention, the opposite is also true. Stillness, silence, meditation, relaxation and repose engage the parasympathetic nervous system which, in turn, serves to expand one’s focus of attention – expand consciousness, as it were. In other words, it expands one’s level of awareness of the environment, of reality. And because the nature of consciousness is infinite, taken to its limit, consciousness can be expanded infinitely until it encompasses all of reality – the entire universe. This state is “unity consciousness” – i.e. self-identification with the entire universe, seeing beyond the illusion of separation and grasping the pettiness and triviality of circumstances that might otherwise capture the full focus of one’s attention.

With an expanded consciousness, one comes to recognize that one’s own waking awareness is, essentially, no more than a single point of attention in a vast, infinite field of consciousness of which one is a part. The recognition of one’s connectivity with this infinite field of consciousness is to expand one’s field of personal awareness and move in the direction of unity consciousness or self-identification with the entire universe.

The Narrative Filter – the Operating System of the Brain

The universe is infinitely complex. When an individual interfaces with reality through the sensory apparatus – starting from a very young age – what they experience is the senses being relentlessly bombarded with sensations and impressions that are baffling and potentially overwhelming. This deluge of sensory impressions can utterly overwhelm the mind’s capacity to make any sense of them.

In order to draw meaning, therefore, from the profusion of seemingly random sensations that the mind is exposed to, the mind constructs narratives from words and images that it is able to discern – drawing causal connections between sensory impressions and speculating on other such correlations and causations. These narratives start out as simplistic and naïve, but become increasingly sophisticated over time, with the application of investigative and scientific methods, imagination, speculation, etc.

The mind constructs narratives from discernible words and images to make sense of reality

Nevertheless, regardless of the complex, in-depth analyses they may develop into, they remain narratives and, therefore, simplifications of reality. They are constructed from words and images and are communicated through culture, tradition, religion, folklore, literature, treatises, discourses, media, entertainment and other such methods, or are simply contrived out of thin air. Because narratives are creations of the human imagination in an attempt to make sense of the infinitely complex reality that relentlessly bombards the senses, they are necessarily inherently simplifications, even oversimplifications, of reality. They are simplified to the point that the human mind can make sense of what it perceives (to some degree).

Once accepted by the mind as the de facto explanation of perceived reality, the narrative becomes a filter over reality. It effectively filters human sensory perceptions and experiences in accordance with the narrative. Over time, therefore, the brain simply filters out anything that does not conform with one’s expectations or jibes with the narrative on which one’s consciousness operates. This is the essence of the “confirmation bias” in human thought – the mind does not even perceive any detail that falls outside the scope of the narrative that it uses as its “operating system,” as it were.

It is estimated that only 10-20% of the sensations picked up by the human sensory apparatus actually reach conscious awareness – a function of the brain known as “sensory gating”. The remaining 80-90% of sensory experiences either register only with the subconscious or are discarded entirely because they fail to conform with the narrative operating system on which the brain operates. Essentially, they are filtered out of conscious awareness by the words and images constituting the dominant narratives that determine our focus and scope of attention, whether or not we realize it. These are the implicit assumptions, cultural biases, etc. that most of us take for granted and accept as the norm.

Questioning these narratives and assumptions is how one can begin to get past the narrative filters that exist over one’s conscious awareness and begin to glimpse reality as it really is – infinitely complex and beyond all the simplistic narrative and cultural filters that we impose on it. When these narrative filters are extremely deep seated, they operate, in effect, as hypnotic suggestions. In other words, these words and images deeply implanted into the subconscious, register as being foundational and axiomatic by one’s consciousness. So fundamental and essential, in fact, that they are accepted without question – forming the basis of all dogmatism, fundamentalism and unquestioned “true belief” as with some religious, cultural and political movements. One has to question one’s assumptions continually in order to avoid succumbing to the state of blind acceptance of simplistic narratives, which may lead to all manner of perceptual and cognitive errors.

The child sees the world as it really is – or as close as the human faculties of perception allow one to perceive reality. The adult perceives reality only through the lens of a lifetime of memories lodged in the conscious and subconscious mind – a lifetime of thoughts, ideas, dreams, experiences, traumas, cultural and traditional influences, literary influences, religious influences, educational influences – a lifetime of exposure to words, language and narrative that, in effect, distort and selectively filter the adult’s perception of reality. As such, the adult is no longer able to perceive or experience the universe as it truly is – not unless they can somehow get past a lifetime of memories – from which arise all manner of biases, prejudices, distortions and misunderstandings.

Meditation – silencing the verbal chatter of the mind and immersing oneself in the profound silence of the deep unconscious or superconscious – is a vehicle of getting past a lifetime of mental distortions, i.e. the verbal and visual memories that distort one’s perception and understanding of reality. To some extent, thereby, meditation enables one to gain access to a clearer, truer perception and experience of reality – one that isn’t colored or distorted by words, language and narrative.

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