At an even deeper level, the way we fill in conceptual blanks plays a huge role in how and what we physically perceive. Our varied meanings can literally change the nature of the information coming across our neuronal “wires”, so two completely different people can experience very different realities. Sights, sounds, tastes, touch, can all take on different qualities, based on the meanings we give them. That works for us and against us. If we think the injured man lying on the sidewalk is a threat to us, our brains won’t process detailed information as well – higher reasoning is suppressed by the autonomic fight-flight response, as we seek to escape imminent danger. But if we believe he just needs our help and poses no threat, we can respond thoughtfully – and actually be of assistance.
Our finely tuned systems are continuously responding to incoming data in ways that both protect us and make it harder for us to stay safe. Our immune systems are suppressed by chronic stress, which makes us more susceptible to infection, so being in a perpetual state of high alert alters how our bodies handle even routine exposures to everyday pathogens. The teenager who grew up in a war zone may respond to a sudden loud BANG by ducking for cover, and that might just save her life in a real battle condition. However, if she’s in a classroom surrounded by peers, completely safe from any danger, that response can shake her up so badly that she can’t concentrate, and she may end up missing the rest of the lesson – and possibly do poorly on a test, as a result. On the other hand, her peers who aren’t trained to dive for cover at the sound of a loud BANG might not last a day during a firefight. But they also don’t run the risk of failing a future test because of war-conditioned hyper-vigilance. Changes in attention and mood can significantly alter our perceptions. Depressed individuals can be less observant, while euphoric people may be keenly aware of every little sensations they have. And through it all, we rely on the patterns we construct out of a veritable perceptual melee to point us in the right direction.
There are plenty of other ways our reliance on pattern and meaning can short-change our quality of life. Despair is similar to prejudice, in that it decides for you up front, what’s to come – and it’s not good. As far as you can tell, you’re doomed. There’s no point in going on. There’s no hope. There’s no point in looking for hope, because despair has convinced you there’s none to be found. Maybe you have enough information to give up completely – more likely, you don’t. But in any case, the practice of considering all the variables and finding different ways to think and act has already been short-circuited by a pattern that paints the bleakest of pictures. In some ways, you could say suicide is the most extreme outcome of individuals identifying patterns and using those patterns to predict a future – or lack thereof. Ending your life can be the ultimate expression of despair – as well as separation from the rest of the world.
Ultimately, much of what we do and think is about coming to terms with the gaps in our lives. We bridge countless physical, temporal, and conceptual distances on a daily basis, moving, thinking, imagining, reacting, and playing our parts in familiar and novel ways, enriching our lives with imagined meanings, so we can “make sense” of the world around us. We want to be involved in our lives, we want to know we matter, and we want to fully experience the things we encounter. We don’t just want to be hapless victims getting swept downstream in the currents of life. We want to have a sense of being part of what’s going on around us. And when the objective facts don’t make meaning immediately apparent, and we take up the slack by finding significance in everything from random chance events to stuff we do on purpose, even as our senses and systems fail us.
As much as we want to believe ourselves and trust our own senses, what we think is true and what we do about it largely results from our limited systems taking in just a portion of the information in the world around us, then applying an “overlay” of our own interpretation to it, filling in the blanks. We draw on data we believe we can trust – whether from past patterns we’ve observed, hearsay, or meanings we’ve teased out of seeming chaos – and we construct a version of the world we can live with. For all its unreliability, bridging conceptual gaps and shortening temporal distance with unverified information adds profound meaning to our lives, helping us move forward into the future we imagine for ourselves. And as vital as it is to us, it’s the cause of untold suffering in the world, both inside our heads and hearts, and in the world around us. It’s all is based on an imperfect system that’s literally riddled with holes. But perhaps that’s for the best. Read on, and we’ll talk about why.