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Saturday, December 27, 2014

To See and Be Seen

Everybody likes to be seen and perceived and understood. That is one of the great joys and delights of social interaction. But even when nobody sees you, you are still there. You still exist. You still are.

Even though I cannot see Bow, I'm pretty sure he is still there underneath the blanket
Object permanence is one of the first lessons babies learn about the nature of reality. They learn it by playing peek-a-boo. Much later, about the time of the first hide and go seek games, they also learn that if they can see someone else, that does not necessarily mean that this someone else can see them. Seeing isn't necessarily reciprocal.

Now I can see Bow. But can he see me?

Another lesson that is even more subtle is that seeing things affects what you know, but being seen does not necessarily affect what someone else knows. If he did not know you were seeing him, then he has no new knowledge.

Peekaboo! I see you!

Trying to gauge another person's state of mind involves guessing what they know and what they do not know, based on the sorts of information that are available to them, and also by trying to model their mental process. It can be very difficult, because not everybody perceives what he sees the same way. Someone can see you, but not notice. Someone can hear you, but not understand what you said. Even very intelligent adult human beings can make terrible miscalculations, just based on a false belief that to exist is to be perceived or that seeing necessarily means knowing.

Daniel J. Povinelli wrote a whole book about what young chimpanzees know about seeing. The problem is that what a researcher knows about what a chimpanzee knows is not necessarily a straightforward fact. The smart chimpanzee may not choose to let the researcher in on all its knowledge. Do you know what I know? How can you be sure?

Yesterday, I reviewed the movie  Cloud Atlas. I took issue with the statement by the character Sonmi:

"To be is to be perceived, and so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other."

Being is one thing. Being perceived is something else. To conflate them is to be a social metaphysician, a person who believes that social reality is the only reality. People may misperceive you. You may misperceive yourself. But who you are is a fact, not open to social mediation.

People perceive different things in the same situation. Sometimes I will reminisce with someone about something that happened long ago, and it will turn out that they never knew a fact that was obvious and significant to me. Then they will say, "I must not have been in the room when that happened." Well, maybe. Or maybe they were in the room, but they were not mentally present. Maybe they saw, but did not perceive, heard, but did not understand. Maybe their attention was centered on another sight which was significant to them, and not to me.

People do not remember what they see. They remember what they perceived and how they interpreted the data. This is one of the reasons that we don't tend to remember what happened in our early infancy. It is not because we did not see, but it was hard to come to many conclusions with so little data to go on. We cannot remember what we did not perceive. It takes time for someone's mind to turn a sight into a perception, an event into a memory.

That is why it can happen that you might meet someone on a particular day, but they will not meet you until much later, when they finally perceive you for the first time. That is the topic of my children's book, When Sword Met Bow

When we bring a baby home for the first time, whether he is a human or a chimpanzee, he does not know enough about life to know us or meet us in any meaningful way. We may meet him on that day, but it may take a while before his cognitive development is enough to meet us back. That is because seeing is not perceiving, and the relations between sentient beings are not necessarily reciprocal.

Seeing is not knowing. And just because you know somebody you must not assume that they know you. And before any seeing or knowing can even begin to happen, things have to actually exist.

Reality is primary. Social reality is secondary. And while psychological visibility -- the feeling you get when somebody really understands you -- is a great delight, people continue to exist even when no one sees them. It's that very basic concept of object permanence that you learned when you started playing peekaboo!


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I liked how you discussed preception from a young age up through adulthood. Often my sister would say I was wrong when I remembered something happened she had forgotten about, but I have always insisted upon being correct when I know I am right. Perhaps that is silly of me, but I do remember certain things that were said, and certain events, and I would just prefer if people could admit when they do not remember something.

    1. Thanks, Julia! I have the same sorts of experiences with people who were there but do not remember, but it is very hard to get people to admit they don't remember something, since if they did not perceive it, it is not there in their memory, and they really don't know it ever happened. That is why they are so adamant in their denials. They are not lying -- they just don't know.

      I have a novelist's ear for dialogue, and I have great episodic memory. I can quote word for word what was said a long time ago, but it's no use, as other people don't remember and quoting their words just annoys them.

  2. I really enjoyed this post too, Aya. I read it a couple of days ago, mulled it over, then read it again today. A few comments: this is likely one of the very reasons that police say that eye witnesses are so unreliable. They didn't really "see" what happened. Once, while I was cruising through a neighborhood, in my brown Cadillac, I was taking pictures of landscape beds that I really liked to share with my landscaper. I was pulled over by the police, 25 minutes into my journey and the cop laughed. He said, "well, you're NOT a MAN, and this car is NOT SILVER". We had a good laugh after I got over being extremely worried about what I had done wrong.
    Secondly, I believe this is what Eckhart Tolle would call, "being present" too. I know sometimes, I can look at Bob when he's speaking and 30 minutes later not remember a thing he said. I really try to do better.
    Third point - this theme was in the movie "Avatar" too... "I SEE you". Great post! I would enjoy discussing this further when we pick up our monthly get togethers again too!

    1. Thanks, Kathy. And yes, that is why eye witness reports are so variable and unreliable as a whole.

      Don't you hate being stopped on suspicion of being someone else? You were lucky that officer was so good-natured, though. We hear so many horror stories today.

      I would love to pick up on the theme of being seen and seeing at our next meeting!