"Well, there's good news and bad news about being an alcoholic, kid. The good news is that it is just a problem of perception. The bad news is that perception is a really big problem."
That's an old saying that has bounced around meetings for years. What does it mean?
Perception itself is a combination of things: sensory input interpreted by pre-programmed reflex-oriented parts of the brain, followed by higher-levels of interpretation and then a final reaction. But, the question remains as what senses really do for us.
Well, to put it simply, our senses help us relate ourselves to the rest of the world. They help us define who we are, and who others are, and where they are in relation to us.
When you take a drink or use a drug, it is also a sensory experience, since your body uses its senses to determine what you have ingested and whether it is good or bad. The body can initiate some instant reflexes (i.e. vomiting, choking, coughing, etc.). The body can also come to the opinion that what is being ingested is 'good' or 'pleasurable.'
Pain itself, according to Dr. Ramachandran, is not a direct sensual experience, but rather an 'opinion' of the health of the body. That's why some people can do terribly 'painful' and seem to have little effect. Pain is an opinion, and so if you don't have the opinion there is a problem, you won't notice it.
Sounds extreme, but that's because we live in an age where pain tolerance is no longer taught. We have come to expect that any sensory input must be taken seriously and remedied, or else we have lost 'control.' So, off we go to the doctor for a handful of pills, or a psychologist for a pep talk. Our ancestors expected pain, and so they were able to better endure it.
Let's think about PTSD: why is it so rampant? Imagine hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the US Civil War who stood in long lines and got shot at, watching thousands of men die at their feet... and in a few years they were back home and the country went along much as it had before.
Modern thought cannot bear such images, and yet death and hardship were far more part of life back then than they are now. We pump our soldiers full of propaganda that they are invincible, and draw they from a society that seals off death and suffering in sterile rooms. Heck the average soldier who watches his friend get blown to bits has never seen an animal get slaughtered for its meat, let alone seen a dead body that wasn't embalmed and cleaned us.
The senses get overloaded, and the result is PTSD. The reality being experienced and the reality that is expected become two different things, and the mind can't handle the differences between perception and expectation. One of them has to win.
The addict is also one with a perceptual problem, in that the addict's sensory experiences become distorted, and so what he perceives and what is really out there gradually lose connection. This is why addicts make such horrible decisions: their perceptions are effected because they have distorted sensory experiences.
How does this begin? It stars at that lower stage of the reflexes. When the senses bring in information from the physical world, the brain must assign a value to the experience and 'create' a perception. If the brain messes this process up and assigns the wrong value to the perception (desirable versus avoidant, good versus bad, etc.), decisions based on that perception will always go wrong.
This means that if you 'perceive' something as good, then you will choose it even when it is objectively bad. That's because your perception does not align with reality. Thus, change means not just 'thinking' in a different way in terms of opinions, but perceiving the world in a different way.
So, you may know that most spiders are harmless, but still suffer from arachnophobia. You still need to perceive spiders in a different way in order to overcome your irrational fear of them.
There is more to this, which I will address in my next post.