William James

In my wonderings about the stacks at UofT, I came across a comprehensive collection of writings by William James. James was one of the first prominent psychologists ever. He lived from 1842 – 1910, he wrote voluminously his entire life. Seriously, his bibliography is 47 pages long, that’s insane.

While I was reading, a specific, and yet very simple observation by James, stood out to me. James looked at the psychology as a structuralist, decomposing the mind into it’s several mental states and perceptual components and then analyzing each one. While doing so, he observed a simple, yet radical fact.

The fact is that eyes see, ears hear, the tongue tastes, skin feels, and the nose smells. That is also to say that eyes don’t hear, ears don’t taste, skin doesn’t smell, etc. Simple, but when you think about it the implications are quite dramatic. We have specific senses that pick up specific inputs from the world around us. The input we receive is all valuable to our well-being. Now, think about the fact that our sense of hearing is not affected by heat, or our eyes don’t care about smells. Our perceptual devices are designed to pick up very specific inputs, and they ignore the rest.

This begs the questions, what is the rest? What is really freaky to me is how much we could be completely oblivious of. Our perception of the world is not necessarily a perception, but a filtering device. Our senses aren’t designed to comprehend the world in all it’s glory at any given moment, they are designed to allow us to continue to be and thrive.

One utility of James’ observation is that everything that you perceive is somehow integral to your well-being. The walls you see, you see them because you must navigate your environment. The information on the page is perceived because you need information to survive in our world. The noises you pick up are necessary to avoid possible threats. You don’t need to worry about the oxygen in the air because it’s not a variable, it’s always there for as long as you’ve been alive. You don’t worry about the radio waves, or the ultra-violate rays, because they don’t need to be perceived.

We know that other animals can perceive different colours than humans. For instance, bees see pollen vividly, it glows and stands out among everything else to them. Mantis Shrimps can see something like 1000 more colours than humans can, I’m sure that must be fun.

Who knows how many variables there are out there that we can’t even perceive? How many more unknowns are there out there that we have no idea about? Could it be that ghosts are floating around us right now? Or is it that time is actually an illusion but our perception organizes being into a linear pattern? It’s a fun thought to play around with.

Hustle it up!

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