Living in your own world? 

A biologist, a forester, an artist and an architect approaching a woodland will probably all be seeing something different. The biologist would see the species of trees and perhaps note all sorts of particularities. The forester would recognise the different tree species as well as the shape of the trunk, and be able to estimate the volume of wood. The artist would see the many shades of green, brown and grey, while the architect's attention might be drawn to the relationship between length and thickness of the trunk, and the span of the canopy.

In other words, they are all looking at the same thing, but they are all looking from a different perspective, a different interest and different set of concepts. When the come home, they will all have a different story to tell about their visit to the woods. The biologist will remember the lovely ashes, the forester will talk about when the woods will be ripe for harvesting and what the yield will be. The artist and the architect, on the other hand, might not even be able to answer the question of which tree species grew in these woods.

Everyone's observations are different because they are the result of personal interest and a personally developed set of concepts. As a consequence, everyone perceives their environment differently. It logically follows on this that everyone lives in a different world, a world that is shaped by personal interest and concepts and filled with personal observations. One person might live in a town rich with birdlife, while another living in the same town might not have that impression at all.

In the same vein, studies have revealed that people who read a newspaper which reports frequently and extensively on crime perceive the world as more threatening than people who read very little about crime. Experiments have also shown that witnesses to an accident all report different versions of the event. They observe different things happening, but they also fill in the gaps that they missed in the sequence of events. Thus they unconsciously make things up, and think that they have observed them.

The way you shape your observations to form a concept is also personal. It does make a difference whether you use a schematic model or form a concept based on images. Feelings are also part of the observation. If you heard a blackbird sing during a defining moment in your life, the concept of blackbird will have a different meaning and content for you than for somebody else.

The reciprocal part that you yourself play in an observation is determined by:

Observations are tied to an individual, they are subjective. It is important to keep in mind that everyone perceives the world differently. A conversation about any subject should really start by exploring where the other person's interests lie, which concepts she uses and how she defines them. On the other hand, you experience the conversation as if everyone is inhabiting the same world. Perhaps we should ask ourselves why on earth we feel the need to talk about the real world with each other. We should perhaps wonder why we nonetheless insist on talking to each other about reality. This question will not be answered here.

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Your own forest?


Look at a tree, a plant or animal. What do you observe? Which concept did you observe? What role did your interest play in this observation? Find out whether there are any other concepts that could be used for this same observation.

Get a number of people to each briefly describe a complex event. Listen closely and analyse their descriptions in terms of concepts. Find out what questions they asked.

Take a walk or go on a moderately long excursion - a zoo, a barn with animals - with a group. Afterwards, discuss with each other what everyone saw. Did everyone see the same things, or were there differences? Discuss the questions and the concepts on which you based your observations. Then go back and take another look.

© Heirs Tom van Gelder - Stichting AntroVista