Photo by: Mark Byzewski
Just a few days ago while driving in Central, WA, I mistook a white plastic bag hanging from sage brush for the rump of a big horned sheep. I had been searching for big horns for a few days and my heart jumped when I spotted the white rump. After another moment of focusing in, my excitement turned to amusement at the sight of the plastic bag stirring in the breeze. Everybody has this experience of when memory upstages reality by failing to properly complete the fragmented patterns of sensory input.
Despite the fact that our sensory input is fragmented, we all experience a coherent, fluid perception of the world. Memory is what takes that fragmented input and turns it into smooth experience.
The moral of the story is that perception is only as good as the patterns stored in our memories. In practice, we can all improve our ability to recognize patterns, which in turn improves memory, which in turn improves perception.
The Center for Ecological Literacy identifies Networks, Nested Systems, Cycles, Flows, Development, and Dynamic Balance as core principles of living systems. So these are the principles, the dynamic patterns, we must be able to observe in order to achieve ecological perception. None of the principles mention objects, yet objects (street signs, double yellow lines, pages of print, concrete) are what we spend most of our time observing. Object-oriented perception pays a price in the currency of context.
Objected-oriented focus is the norm in Western cultures and can been seen in many everyday behaviors. The research of Richard Nisbett shows that Westerners tend to overlook context as an influence of behavior and show a poor capacity, in relation to many other cultures, to perceive relationships among events. Westerners tend to organize knowledge by category unlike other cultures that focus on how objects and events relate to one another. Western infants tend to learn nouns more quickly than verbs. Westerners often use formal logic when reasoning, even if that logic repeatedly results in error and frequently have difficulty understanding and accepting multiple-causality and seemingly contradictory phenomena.
There are advantages and disadvantages to these tendencies. One advantage is Westerners have a knack for producing revolutionary science. One disadvantage is Westerners have a hard time understanding systems, living and otherwise, which are in constant flux and best described by relationships, not components or categories. In short, Westerners most often do not have the perceptual tools for ecological perception.
Many perceptual shifts that improve pattern recognition, memory, and ultimately ecological perception are easily accessible with practice, even if you did not grow up with them. Two common ones among naturalists are known as Owl Eyes and Fox Walking. In later posts I will talk about both of these and other shifts to open up ecological perception. Together, we will learn to see bags where there be bags, and sheep where there be sheep and maybe all get to know reality a little bit better.