Limited Observation

I was introduced last week to the limitations of our ability to see, reminded that looking is one thing; perception quite another. A group of us was shown a picture containing a number of pens and we were asked to count them in 2 seconds. We were then given 4 seconds, the result? Our perceptions were off both times.

This reminded me of the warnings in both Buddhism and Taoism about judgement, my understanding is that this is because our reality is shaped by our perceptions. As my recent group experience proved, those perceptions are woefully inadequate. On further reflection, our abilities as observers are very flawed. Clearly, time pressure takes a terrible cost; but in a constantly changing world, how can our observations ever be complete?

It gets worse, we are limited in what’s available to be seen by both time and location. Our nature means that we can’t see or hear everything, we’re bound by the limits of our senses and the limits of our ability to perceive the sense data; we can be overloaded by the world.  At the last, everything we see is interpreted in light of our preconceptions and biases, which returns to the chapter above.  We might well see, but lack the background to understand what we’re seeing.

I found myself realising that the main message of where I was, which was to slow down, is applicable in so many other places. Can we improve the above situation? I think we can. Be slower to judge, wait for evidence, take time to observe more fully. This comes back to my own long standing view that the world we’re in is too rushed. The question I’m left reflecting on is how best to combat this?


  1. Scribe September 7, 2014

    Is the world too rushed, or are we encouraged to judge too much? Why is accuracy of objective importance? Or when is it?

  2. Richard September 8, 2014

    Hi Scribe, thanks for your comment. I believe the world is too rushed, and that a slower pace would be better for all of us. As for judging, we do that all the time. I feel being slower to reach a conclusion is better; as Carl Sagan said, it’s ok to wait till the evidence is in.

    Accuracy is desirable but as our ability to perceive and understand is limited by our nature, we have to accept that our views might not be as accurate as we’d like. With that said it’s often not nessecary to be perfectly accurate, just good enough.

  3. Scribe September 12, 2014

    Thanks for the reply Richard. I agree, we’re definitely pushed to make decisions sooner than we should, or with less information than is useful – from adverts through to lifechanging moments. Perhaps the real kicker is the meta-judgement – the regret or the relief post-decision. Do we kick ourselves because we made the wrong choice given the information, or because we failed to get enough information?

    I’ve tried to justify my own decisions for a long time not on a feedback basis, but in order to avoid regret. To go into a decision with our eyes open, and to come out of it with memory of what happened, seems sensible, yet rarely done. If you know you made a decision to the best of your ability in the time available, then hindsight becomes useless (or identical to what happened).

    Thanks for the blog by the way, it’s a long-standing favourite in the RSS reader.

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