At any particular time, what we perceive – what goes to make up our personal reality – is determined, to a greater or lesser extent, by our presenting needs. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the purely physical properties of the world around us. When our in-built survival mechanisms are doing the job they were meant to do, our senses will scan the presenting world-view for elements that will satisfy our subjective needs at that particular moment, and these needs may be physical or emotional. If we’re walking in the high street and our bladder is full, we’ll ignore the shops, the restaurants, the traffic and the passers-by and scan the totality of the presenting visual field for the presence of an image of a public toilet. Once found, we make a bee-line toward it. Need satisfied, problem solved. Or, in a crowded room, we listen to the babel of voices around us to identify the particular sound of the voice of a loved one. It’s an experienced fact, then, that we isolate that which is personally meaningful – that is, the foreground – from the irrelevant background from which it is drawn. You or I, in a given place at a given time, facing in the same direction but with different internalised needs, are capable of subjectively perceiving two entirely different scenarios.
And that goes for all of us. By the subjective process we call ‘attention’, each one of us has the ability to construct uniquely different realities from the presenting field. Imagine a sackful of tiny multi-coloured beads emptied out on the floor in front of a group of people. Each individual would be able to make a different picture by picking up a personal selection of beads from the chaotic mess on the ground. The difference – and what a difference it is! – between this analogy and the process of perception is that in the latter the individual has no choice!
The gestalt – that is, the foreground, is an individually meaningful pattern that spontaneously separates itself from the background, the presenting material world – in response to the perceiver’s over-riding psychic state. What we perceive as being real is precisely what we need to perceive at any given moment. We look at flames, at passing clouds, or at patterns tea-leaves make at the bottom of a drained cup, and every one of us will see different images in them. Our perception, by its very nature, will scan the presenting field in order to isolate a foreground image that is personally meaningful. Instead of perceiving the totality of the world as it really is so that we can respond to present actuality in an appropriate way, our attention is focussed on scanning the present field for patterns that relate to unadmitted, internalised and therefore unresolved feelings about the past – ‘unfinished business’ – that distort our perception of what’s going on around us and prevent us from presently seeing the world as it really is. In our on-going yearning for gratification of our suppressed but authentic needs, we unconsciously – imperceptively – overlook and ignore vital elements in the presenting world-field. We may be looking at the world around us, but to a greater or lesser extent we are only selecting those elements that fit in with a fixed, unchanging and obsolete world-view.
We don’t necessarily perceive the actuality – the nuts and bolts – of what’s actually before us at any given moment. What passes for reality is always, to a greater or lesser extent, a personal construct. Looking at precisely the same physical field, you or I will isolate, become aware of, only those elements that represent, remind us of, incompleted gestalts, unresolved emotional conflicts from our personal past. In extreme cases, when this repressed material from the past can take over and completely replace the physical presenting field, it produces what is known as an hallucination. But as it was pointed out as early as 1890, by the psychologist William James: ‘An hallucination is a strictly sensational form of consciousness, as good and true a sensation as if as if there were a real object there. The object happens not to be there, that is all.’
At any given moment in time, we don’t see the world as it is – we see it as we are. It’s a fact. You don’t need to believe it – you already know it!