There are lots of explanations going around now about why people perceive the colors of That Dress differently, but all the hullabaloo made this blogpost about Perception Is Odd stand out to me all the more. The blogger talks about not being able to see street signs in a city because they were a different color than he was used to seeing most of his life. It’s interesting to me that something can exist, but we may not be able to perceive it even though it’s right in front of us.
In 2001, I attended a wilderness survival camp with my husband. The lessons centered a lot on expanding our abilities to perceive the world around us. Some of the instructors would conduct awareness tests from time to time, camouflaging themselves to see if they could pull pranks on us or startle us when we were walking along a trail. The point was to help us pay more attention to details we might not have noticed before that could impact our safety or health. I noticed a similar effect when practicing martial arts for self-defense purposes. Suddenly, you notice the supermarket security person trying to discreetly follow you, or when someone is behaving oddly.
The debate on the subject of how we perceive things has me wondering about all kinds of other situations in which our experience is based on our perception. How does this impact our ability to appreciate visual art? Our ability to create visual art? How about our ability to see things in nature? You’ve seen those pictures where they challenge you to count how many people are hiding in camouflage. Can you see them easily?
Some of this ability to perceive different colors is genetic, based on how many kinds of cones you have in your eyes, but sometimes it’s a matter of experience and education. Like the writer who had to learn to see the street signs when they were a different color, sometimes we just have to expand our awareness. I was stunned to learn that it wasn’t until recently that people had a word for the color blue. (Here is an interesting article about this phenomenon.) The reasoning goes that blue is a fairly rare color to see in nature and so people would have had limited exposure to it. Interestingly, the Egyptians are an exception to the blue-blindedness of most cultures. They had created blue dye and one would assume by association that they could appreciate the unique color of it.
The “dress debate” leads me to wonder if there are other things our senses may not perceive. Are there sounds we “hear” just fine, but don’t differentiate from others? My dad had a long career as a piano tuner-technician. He taught me that each key on a piano strikes three strings. When you tune a piano, you have to tune each of the strings. You can use felt pads to isolate the strings and tune them with a machine so that they are nearly exactly the same, according to the digital response on the machine. This will result in a satisfactory tone when the hammer strikes the three strings together. However, a superior technician can tune the three strings by ear so that each string, while technically playing the same tone and pitch, will resonate with the other two strings to create a richer note with more depth in its sound. Cool stuff you didn’t know, huh? I tried once to learn this tuning ability from my dad. It was a lesson in frustration for me, and I gave it up. I took violin lessons for a while a few years after that and had a similar difficulty. I could tell that I was learning to appreciate the tone quality as well as the pitch, but it was a difficult effort for me. In the end, I gave up violin due to a skin condition that made it painful to press the strings with my fingertips.
My brother’s eyes work just fine, but he’s been declared legally blind due to a head injury that has affected his ability to translate from his eyes to his brain just what it is he’s seeing. He has difficulty recognizing faces – put me next to one of my daughters in front of him and he can work to figure out who’s who by comparison, but put just one of us in front of him and he’ll get it wrong as often as he gets it right. He’s a trouper to handle this difficulty without getting outrageously frustrated.
I know that I can touch the braille bumps on an elevator key pad, and I think the concept is wonderful, but I sure don’t differentiate or feel patterns in those bumps very well. I’m certain that necessity is the mother of education here, and I’d prefer to never have the necessity, but it’s interesting to think about.
I wonder if there is a spiritual sense (I think there is), that some people may more easily perceive than others. I think we can cultivate this sense, just as we can learn braille or how to tune a violin, but I wonder how many people deny the existence of some spiritual things, because, “If you can’t see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, or feel it with a body part, it doesn’t exist.” These people call themselves “realists” or “atheists” because spiritual things don’t register on their senses the way those things might to some of the rest of us. Some of us who do believe in some spiritual things may deny the “reality” of others, simply because they don’t fit into our personal paradigm about what is true. If the debate over the color quality of a simple dress can cause so much hotly contested debate as has happened in the last couple of days on social media, no wonder the debates about religion and spirituality can get touchy sometimes.
By-the-way, I saw the dress as white and gold, or blue and black. For me it was a simple matter of how I chose to adjust my perception. I wonder how many other things we could learn to appreciate that we might be missing, simply because we refuse to open our minds to the idea that there are other possibilities.