A new scientific understanding of perception has emerged in the past few decades, and it has overturned classical, centuries-long beliefs about how our brains work—though it has apparently not penetrated the medical world yet. The old understanding of perception is what neuroscientists call “the naïve view,” and it is the view that most people, in or out of medicine, still have. We’re inclined to think that people normally perceive things in the world directly. We believe that the hardness of a rock, the coldness of an ice cube, the itchiness of a sweater are picked up by our nerve endings, transmitted through the spinal cord like a message through a wire, and decoded by the brain.
In a 1710 “Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge,” the Irish philosopher George Berkeley objected to this view. We do not know the world of objects, he argued; we know only our mental ideas of objects. “Light and colours, heat and cold, extension and figures—in a word, the things we see and feel—what are they but so many sensations, notions, ideas?” Indeed, he concluded, the objects of the world are likely just inventions of the mind, put in there by God.
If your name suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment
or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons
or the birthdays of gods and demons,
it’s probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States,
and try not to talk too loud.
If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried you face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother too harshly.
Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing
turning a child’s eyes
away from history
and toward the place where all human aching starts.
And if you meet someone
in your adoprted country,
and think you see in the other’s face
an open sky, some promise of new beginning,
it probably means you’re standing too far.
Or if you think you read in the other, as in a book
whose first and last pages are missing,
the story of your own birthplace,
a country twice erased,
once by fire,once by forgetfulness,
it probably means you’re standing too close.
In any case, try not to let another carry
the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.
And if you’re one of those whose left side of the face doesn’t match
the right, it moght be a clue
looking the other way was a habit
your predecessors found useful for survival.
Don’t lament not being beautiful.
Get used to seeing while not seeing.
Get busy remembering while forgetting.
Dying to live while not wanting to go on.
Very likely, your ancestors decorated
their bells of every shape and size
with elabrate calendars
and diagrams of distant star systems,
but with no maps for scattered descendants.
And I bet you can’t say what language
your father spoke when he shouted to your mother
from the back of the truck “Let the boy see!”
Maybe it wasn’t the language you used at home.
Maybe it was a forbidden language.
Or maybe there was too much screaming
and weeping and noise of guns in the streets.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:
The kingdom of heaven is good.
But heaven on earth is better.
Thinking is good
But living is better.
Alone in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.
by Li-Young Lee from Behind My Eyes