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How Can We See Eye to Eye When Perception is 90% Memory?

According to writer and surgeon Atul Gawande's recent article The Itch, the way the pepper tree in my back yard appears from my bedroom window may be as much as ninety percent memory and only ten percent "data."   As Gawande writes: 

Given simply the transmissions along the optic nerve from the light entering the eye one would not be able to reconstruct the three-dimensionality, or the distance, or the detail of the bark -- attributes that we perceive instantly. 

In other words, perception is not merely reception.  "Objective reality" is just the brain's "best guess" about what the eyes observe, the ears hear and the fingers touch.

(image:  Phantom Limb #2 by Lynn Hershman

"The images in our mind," Gawande explains, "are extraordinarily rich."

We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor -- a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you'd expect that most of the fibres going to the brain's primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty per cent do; eighty per cent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals.

Gawande doesn't explain how we manage to agree on anything with such impoverished perceptual abilities and richly imagined constructs of "objective reality."   I suspect that our insatiable urge to tell one another stories is the primary way we create the collective memories that allow us to agree upon such simple "facts" as "the apple is red and somewhat round," if not necessarily that "the blue Kia entered the intersection after the traffic light turned red."  

What strikes me about Gawande's article is not so much the pure science described there, but the way in which opposing parties in litigation resemble "phantom limbs" and joint sessions the mirrors used by physicians to treat the pain "felt" in them.       

Recent research demonstrates that amputees' phantom limb pain can be reduced or eliminated by "fooling" the brain into believing that the missing limb is "well."  When researchers asked amputees to put their surviving arm through a hole in the side of a box with a mirror inside and to then move "both" arms, 

[t]he patients had the sense that they had two arms again. Even though they knew it was an illusion, it provided immediate relief. People who for years had been unable to unclench their phantom fist suddenly felt their hand open; phantom arms in painfully contorted positions could relax. With daily use of the mirror box over weeks, patients sensed their phantom limbs actually shrink into their stumps and, in several instances, completely vanish. . . .

. . . here’s what the new theory suggests is going on: when your arm is amputated, nerve transmissions are shut off, and the brain’s best guess often seems to be that the arm is still there, but paralyzed, or clenched, or beginning to cramp up. Things can stay like this for years. The mirror box, however, provides the brain with new visual input—however illusory—suggesting motion in the absent arm. The brain has to incorporate the new information into its sensory map of what’s happening. Therefore, it guesses again, and the pain goes away.     

Litigation separates the parties from one another as radically as an amputation, often under circumstances where the law suit is all they have in common.  Like amputees, the parties cannot massage the missing muscle, scratch the irritating itch, or ease the frustrating pain.           

When physicians give their patients mirrors and instruct them to move their one remaining arm in concert with its physically re-imagined partner, they conduct a silent concert of healing.  With "new" information (hey! there's my other arm and it's not all cramped up!) the brain readjusts and stops sending false signals.  The muscle relaxes.  The itch is scratched.  The pain is relieved.  

Joint sessions can be used as mirrors to make missing disputants appear again./*  The mediator -- who is trained in this art -- creates an environment (the "box") in which the parties are able to adjust the mis-impressions and correct the mis-communications that make the conflict so difficult to resolve. After a brief period of discomfort and incoordination, the disputants begin to tell their stories of injustice in concert, spontaneously harmonizing the points on which there is little disagreement and resolving those parts of the tale where the greatest differences lie. 

Those parts of the story that have grown wildly distorted in the absence of any corrective influence, are shrunk back to their appropriate size.  Freed from the tyranny of their phantom "others,"  the parties begin to work collaboratively to solve the problem that they now understand is mutual.  

Though this is surely metaphor, the process is not just theory.  When parties consent to a joint session orchestrated by the mediator in collaboration with their attorneys, this type of reconciliation happens more often than not.  

Don't, however, confuse this joint session with those in which attorneys  give one another presentations proving their entitlement to victory as if there were a phantom "decider"  -- a missing arbitrator or judge -- somewhere behind a curtain.  These are the type of "joint sessions" that have given joint sessions a bad name because counsel well know their opponents' "positions"and the parties tend to become less rather than more amenable to settlement when their opponents' point of view is once again argued to them -- this time in quarters that are far too close for most lawyers, let alone their clients. 

We'll keep exploring this issue.  For now, more of the Gawande article below.  

A new scientific understanding of perception has emerged in the past few decades, and it has overturned classical, centuries-long beliefs about how our brains work—though it has apparently not penetrated the medical world yet. The old understanding of perception is what neuroscientists call “the naïve view,” and it is the view that most people, in or out of medicine, still have. We’re inclined to think that people normally perceive things in the world directly. We believe that the hardness of a rock, the coldness of an ice cube, the itchiness of a sweater are picked up by our nerve endings, transmitted through the spinal cord like a message through a wire, and decoded by the brain. . . .

[There are] some serious flaws in the direct-perception theory—in the notion that when we see, hear, or feel we are just taking in the sights, sounds, and textures of the world. For one thing, it cannot explain how we experience things that seem physically real but aren’t: sensations of itching that arise from nothing more than itchy thoughts; dreams that can seem indistinguishable from reality; phantom sensations that amputees have in their missing limbs. And, the more we examine the actual nerve transmissions we receive from the world outside, the more inadequate they seem.

Our assumption had been that the sensory data we receive from our eyes, ears, nose, fingers, and so on contain all the information that we need for perception, and that perception must work something like a radio. It’s hard to conceive that a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert is in a radio wave. But it is. So you might think that it’s the same with the signals we receive—that if you hooked up someone’s nerves to a monitor you could watch what the person is experiencing as if it were a television show.

Yet, as scientists set about analyzing the signals, they found them to be radically impoverished  . . .

________________________

*/   I don't know if any of this relates to mirror neurons, but I am certainly led to think about them.  See Stephanie West Allen's post Mirror Neurons, Some Resources here.  Whenever I see the word "mirror" I'm also always moved to think of my friend, the artist and mediator Dorit Cypis.  For more on her work, click here.

Comments (1)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Guy Harris - July 2, 2008 4:51 PM

Victoria,

Thanks for you thoughts on this topic. I posted an article today that offers some additional thoughts on the implications of this theory.

http://principledriven.com/blog/2008/07/02/beware-of-perception-error/

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