Personal Perception of Reality

Teaching science I often wonder how my students perceive the physical world as they delve deeply into science concepts. It is often assumed that our personal perception of the world around us is the same from one person to the next. Yet current cognitive research indicates that we have far more “senses” than the five we talk about in elementary school. The 20-30 sensory organs (depending on subdivision) in the human body collects on average 11 million bits of data per second. Of that 11 million bits/sec the maximum amount we can process and pay attention to with the conscious portion of our brain is about 40 bits/sec and most of the time the average is around 16 bits/sec. That leaves a tremendous amount of information left unattended as we go about our daily lives. Even if we all gather the same 11 million bits/sec of sensory data, what are the odds that we will each select the same 40 bits of information to pay attention to each second? Seems rather unlikely, doesn’t it?

But that is how we traverse our world every day, throwing out all but 0.00036 percent of the data we gather every second. Does that small percentage really give us a substantial representation of the world around us? To make matters more complicated, our perceived reality is also based on prior experiences and expectations related to individual stored memories. Our brain “expects” to understand the perceived reality represented around us. If it receives incomplete information, the brain will almost instantly fill in the missing pieces to complete the physical object or event such as a shape, motion, or image. Examine the image below. What do you see?

If you say circles and triangles you are not alone. But look at the image closely. In actuality there are no circles or triangles but a series of angles and “Pacman” like pieces. In any other physical arrangement of the pieces, that is what we would see. But because of the specific arrangement of each piece in the image, your brain tries to fill in the missing pieces to make circles into triangles. For me, I even seem to see “depth” in the image as if the triangles are layered on top of one another making a 3-dimensional image.

We see what our brain wants us to see related to data input and memories based on prior experiences. But that doesn’t mean our perception matches the reality of the physical world. It also doesn’t mean each of us will come to the same conclusion of the reality that surrounds us. This certainly is a sobering thought as we teach in a classroom full of thirty plus independent thinkers, all trying to understand the abstract concepts we are trying to convey. The topics in school we so clearly feel the we teach are inevitably absorbed in a myriad of different ways by students who will be attentive and connect to some of what we say and just as easily disregard other parts. The lens of perception in the classroom is certainly one worth pondering by every teacher.

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