Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Depth of Perception

I was on a brief camping holiday at Deception Pass, about an hour from my front door, this weekend.

The pass itself is a short (a mile or two), narrow (a few hundred feet at the narrowest) seaway between Fidalgo Island, which is really more of a peninsula, and Whidbey Island, an island about 40 miles long. As such it is the kind of place that develops substantial tidal currents. These are commonly 6 or 7 knots at their peak, which is quite a clip. Much faster than you can swim, row, or paddle.

There was a moment, maybe an interval, when I was looking out over the water at the patterns of ripples and waves and flotsam on the surface, and I perceived something of what was going on. The water nearest me, and out to the center of the channel, and then a little beyond, was moving to the right. Beyond that, past a little interval of rougher water, the water was moving to the left. The is normal at the changing of tides, the great mass of water is switching directions and does not do so all at once.

But what was actually to be seen? What, for instance, did my children see?

They saw a random seeming pattern of glitter and dark patches on the surface of the water. If they paid a little more attention, they maybe noticed a piece of kelp moving left to right, or right to left, but likely did not make much note of it. As a former sailor, though, I was acutely aware of the motions of water, and where one would position ones boat to best advantage.

We all of us perceived the neural shimmer of stimulation on our retinas in much the same way, and somewhere along the line that was transformed into a percept of "water in a passage of stone, bridge over there, beach here" with maybe even a shared idea of motion.

When I looked, I saw, I perceived, rivers of water of unknown depth, moving masses swirling past one another. I thought in terms of positioning a boat. In the back of my mind, the moon is humping up water, and these masses are the sloshing of water flowing forever down the slopes of a moving hill of ocean half the size of the planet. When my children looked, they saw glitter.

A Swinomish 500 years ago, looking over the same water, would likely have seen the masses of water in motion, though moved by what forces I cannot know. They might also, perhaps, have paid special attention to the interface between the masses, as these interfaces often concentrate sea life. Perhaps they would have thought of the scene in terms of food to be caught there, or spirits present at that interface, or something else I cannot imagine. They might have seen the Maiden of Deception Pass, Ko-kwahl-alwoot, in the waters.

Between the neural shimmer at the retina, and the gods of creation, there seems to be a continuum of perception. It's entirely possible that there are clear lines, clear layers, but that my mind papers them over for me. Since we're talking perception, though, perhaps it is the papered over version that is relevant anyway.

The point is that our perception of something, anything, is a structure that rests on the merest neurological stimulation of sense organs, and which extends upward to the narrative forms construed by the conscious mind in what we might as well consider as a continuous apparatus. The narrative forms that arise when we perceive, as a consequence of physical perception, seem to flow back down, shaping the whole into a single sleek structure, seamless from biology to story.

The upper regions of this continuum diverge in each of us, while we more or less share the lower regions. Our personal histories, our cultural backgrounds, determine much of the conscious mind's story around what we see. I perceive in a small way the moon. The Swinomish perhaps perceives something about their own Persephone, the Maiden, who married a man from the sea to guarantee the richness of food from the waters of the pass, who lives there still. My children perceive something of sparkly water and coldness and the delight of seeing their dog swimming after thrown sticks.

Any sailor would look at the moving waters of Deception Pass and perceive the whole rather as I do. Any child would likely see it the way mine do. A modern Swinomish might not believe in the Maiden, but might well see the waters through that lens, and might well visualize salmon massed in the interface between moving waters. We fall in lumps, groups, that perceive in something of the same way.

And so, of course, the same with the photograph. At some point, we each of us diverge one from another. This lump of people, this group, tend to see the photograph more or less this way, and that group sees it more or less that way, and perhaps there are a few other groups, and then there's the schizophrenic that sees monsters nobody else perceives.

Because this structure of perception, which builds the details of the percept up from raw senses into a story, appears to us continuous, unbroken, it appears to us that our perception is the true one and all others must be mistaken or incomplete. There seem to us no decision points, no places where a divergence might naturally occur. All follows naturally, inevitably, from the basic sense inputs.

But it's not true. The Swinomish and the white child do perceive quite differently, because they are different creatures.

It would be well for us to understand that the world is filled with different creatures, whose perceptions are not our own. It would be well for us to lean more on our powers of empathy, which are substantial, than on our powers of perception in this generalized sense.

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