Our perceptual filters shape the world

Here’s your weekly Science Matters column by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

Our perceptual filters shape the world

If presented with the autopsied brains of a diverse array of people, no expert would be able to distinguish from the brains’ anatomy or neurocircuitry the gender, religion, or socio-economic class of the cadavers. Because we are members of one species, our brains, neurons, and sensory organs are similar in structure and chemistry. But if you were to ask both men and women about love and family, Israelis and Palestinians about Gaza, Catholics and Protestants in Belfast about British occupation, Republicans and Democrats about Karl Rove, and Shia, Sunni, and Kurds about U.S. troops, you’d think the respondents came from different planets.
What this demonstrates is that we learn to see the world through perceptual lenses formed by heredity, upbringing, personal experiences, religion, socio-economic differences, and so on. Even though we detect our surroundings in the same way through eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue, our brains actively filter that incoming information so that it “makes sense” according to our individual values and beliefs. This creates huge dissonance between fossil-fuel executives, environmentalists, and politicians when we discuss an issue like climate change.
I was reminded of how acutely our values affect our ability to see things when I accompanied ethnobotanist Wade Davis to a remote village at the foot of a large mountain in Peru. Wade told me that the villagers regard that mountain as an “Apu” or god and believe that as long as it casts its shadow on the community, it will shape their lives.
“Compare the way a child in this village treats that mountain with a Canadian kid in the Rockies who is taught a mountain is full of gold and other valuable minerals,” Wade said. The way we perceive the world shapes the way we treat it.
I have thought of Wade’s story often. How differently we would behave if we thought of a forest as a sacred grove instead of timber and pulp, of a river as the veins of the land rather than a source of irrigation or power, of soil as a complex community of organisms and not dirt, of other species as our evolutionary kin rather than resources, of our house as our home instead of property.
Most of our battles over environmental issues revolve around the differences in how we perceive and define the problem. While filming a special program on forestry for The Nature of Things in the 1990s, we arranged to interview loggers working in a cut block near Ucluelet on Vancouver Island. When we arrived and set up the camera, the loggers came out of the forest and began to cuss me out as an environmentalist who was threatening their jobs.
The confrontation made for good television, but I was frustrated at our inability to find common ground. Finally I told them, “I worked as a carpenter for eight years, and to this day, I love working with wood. No environmentalist I know is against logging. We just want to be sure that your children and grandchildren will be able to log forests as rich as the ones you’re working in now.”
Immediately, one of the men replied that he’d never let his kids to go into logging. “There won’t be any trees left!” he said. And there it was. Those men knew that they were cutting the trees down in a way that ensured there would be no harvestable timber for future generations of loggers, but they saw the trees as the way to put food on the table day after day and make the house and car payments at the end of the month.
How can we resolve such differences in perspective? I don’t know, but I am sure that the challenge has to do with what’s locked inside our skulls. I have spent more than 40 years trying to use the electronic media to inform and educate, but I continue to be flabbergasted by the strength of those perceptual filters.
We have to find ways of overcoming those blocks so that we can begin to agree on some basic principles. We are not outside or on top of the web of living things; we are deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on it for our survival and well-being. Without that understanding, we will continue on our destructive rampage.

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