Proprietor’s note: This is an expanded version of a post that first appeared April 25
“The problem, Watson, is that you look but you don’t see!”
I have a habit of giving advice to TV detectives as they bumble through their investigations. My wife puts up with this and even chimes in herself when some obvious clue seems to be overlooked. Currently we are giving advice to DCS Christopher Foyle, (Foyle’s War, available on DVD from our wonderful Monterey County Library), though he seldom needs our help.
I have often longed to have long-suffering, amiable Dr. Watson remark, “The problem, Holmes, is that you talk but you don’t communicate!”
“What could you possibly mean by saying, I look but don’t see? What earthly difference is there?”
“All the difference in the world, my dear doctor,” smiles Holmes in reply. And, of course, he is correct.
One of the axioms of medical anthropology is the distinction between sickness and illness. Yes, Watson, there is a difference. Sickness is pathology, malfunction, inflammation, pus and fever. Illness is our own individual experience of these things: hope and fear, decision-making resource allocation, in the context of our personal experience and the norms and values of our culture.
The distinction between “looking” and “seeing” is quite similar. Looking is the physical act that involves reflected light striking photoreceptors, which are excited to pass along a signal to a group of neurons in what passes for a brain in whatever organism is doing the looking. The phenomena ends there.
Seeing is a higher order function that includes the interpretation of the neural signals in terms of representation and attribution. Representation is what the signals seem to form in the mind’s eye: a cow, a bicycle, a thingamajig. Representation takes the form of nouns. Attribution recruits the slew of adjectives that swarm in and turn a guy into a “hunk,” or make a sideways glance “sinister.”
Part of looking is what we are equipped with to do the looking. Take a rainbow, for instance. Human beings have three color receptors called cones in their retinas. We receive signals from these receptors that we represent mentally as a rainbow. Except, that is for the 10% of persons, overwhelmingly males, who are color blind.When they look, they end up seeing a bi-chromatic rainbow, colors that can be represented by the combinations of signals from only two of the three cones.
Your dog has only two color receptors in his eyes and when he looks at a rainbow, he sees only what his eyes are capable of detecting and his brain capable of attributing: the same bi-chromatic rainbow that the colorblind person sees. (for a nice view of what Fido sees when he looks at his toys.)
So we humans are capable of looking at objects and seeing richer colors than our pooch. Before you start to nod knowingly from the zenith of evolution about the natural superiorities of the human organism, pause for a moment to look at a dandelion blossom.
When we look with our tri-chromatic eyes we see a yellow flower, and perhaps the unwanted scourge of our perfect lawn, (representation and attribution). Honeybees also have three types of color receptors. However, instead of red, blue and green, honeybees see colors that result from the combination of green, blue and ultra violet. They have tri-chromatic vision, but they see things quite differently. (Here’s a gallery of bee’s eye views of flowers.)
Butterflies have six types of color receptors and the mantis shrimp has 12 to 16 depending on who’s doing the counting. So, we look with different equipment than our fellow sighted creatures. But we have no way of knowing how differently we may see than our neighbors. But consider for a moment the differences in seeing just among human beings: between me and you; him and her.
Why is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Why is it that when a pickpocket looks at a saint all he sees are pockets? These are questions that might baffle Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth, but neuroscientists and psychologists are beginning to tackle this knotty problem. Their preliminary discoveries form the basis of the current mindfulness craze, and the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy.
More about that some other time, Foyle is about to walk into an abandoned munitions factory and he may need my help.
Studies using super-fast, high-resolution EEGs have demonstrated that when signals come from our eyes to the visual cortex in the brain, we perceive them in their unadulterated form for about 25 milliseconds. After that finger snap of time the representing and attributing functions of the brain activate a widespread neural network. Parts of the brain associated with emotions, memory, reward, and spatial awareness are included in this network. Connections between the brain and the body are also activated so there is a somatic component to every perception.
The representing activities are really fast. How long does it take to recognize the difference between a rose and a fork? What the brain really lingers on is attributing context to what we have seen. Remember that attribution is the assigning of adjectives.
Here is a fully attributed vignette: The condescending physician regarded his patient sarcastically and asked patronizingly, “So, you think you have a heart problem?” Idly picking up a model of a heart, he contemptuously asked, “What sort of heart problem do you think you have?”
Strip away all the attribution and we change from Dr. Mengele to Marcus Welby: The physician regarded his patient and asked, “So you think you have a heart problem?” Picking up a model of a heart he asked, “What sort of heart problem do you think you have?”
Attributing qualities and characteristics to perceptions is vital and automatic. Without the ability to interpret perceptions we might end up being treated by the first doctor instead of the second. We might mistake a snake in the grass for a harmless garter snake, so to speak.
In science there is a lot of looking done with a lot of expensive and exotic toys. Good scientists keep the seeing to a minimum until the end of the experiment. The reason is that they do not want to be swayed by “observational bias.” They want to see things as they are, not as they hope/fear they might be. Observational bias can be introduced by the instruments used (human eye versus butterfly eye), or the setting of the observations (naturalistic versus artificial), or by the scientist’s own desire for a particular outcome.
In daily life we make a lot of observations but within 20-30 milliseconds we are busy introducing our own particular bias. Our bias has various sources including our past experiences, our fears/hopes, our prejudices, and our desire to see things in a certain preconceived manner. We would not be here if our ancestors did not operate from observational bias. From escaping sudden death in the jungle to selecting a particular mate, our bias determines our behaviors.
While preconceptions and prejudices make life possible, they can also make life miserable. When our preconceived notion of the world is that it is an unsafe place, neutral experiences become fearful. When our prejudice is that people outside our group are less valuable than an in-crowd, discrimination occurs. When we think we are not worthy of happiness, all our experiences reinforce the feelings that give rise to depression.
Mindfulness, while currently tainted with the stain of faddishness, is simply trying to be aware of the adjectives we insert into the story of our life. Since we are constantly writing and reciting this script in our head, we should learn to choose our adjectives carefully.
Have an unforgettably joyous day.
* Sherlock is such a part of our zeitgeist that I won’t bother to correct the attribution to the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Woods is a physician and therapist who has practiced in Watsonville for 25 years. He currently provides medical treatment and psychotherapy for children and adolescents.