Perception. It might be one of the greatest gifts and abilities given to humankind, but also one of the most hidden. Constantly, people far and near, of big social status and of small make unique mental pictures for themselves about their surroundings – everyone’s being unique. The word itself is defined as “The act or faculty of perceiving, or apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition; understanding.” One can simplify the definition: the act of making a mental picture and/or judgment call based on the mental picture. The ability to perceive might be one of the unsung heroes of human creativity and innovation. Think about it: all great inventions began with an idea or perception of what needed to be made to fill in a gap in society. Perception is an individual trait that can be influenced by one’s beliefs, preconceived notions, and any adopted practice from previous generations. In this way perception is as DNA, completely unique to an individual. Yet, as seen in politics and other areas of life, different perceptions on different issues can build upon each other to form a solid conclusion to an issue. On a lesser scale, consider Delaware, Ohio. Could people’s perceptions of the town determine its character? If so, where does that character lie and how is it uncovered?
Sparking a quest in my brain for the answer to this question,
I naturally did what any present day teenager would: go to Google. From there I have enjoyed plowing a path between webpages and books, exploring the study of (specifically) visual perception: how people interpret what they see. Quickly, the cream started to rise to the top, as I came across an article written by Saul McLeod, a psychology lecturer at Wigan and Leigh College, and discovered that two contemporary theories of perception lie at the forefront of psychology today. These theories beg to explain the definitive processes by which the human brain perceive, and would prove to be the solid ground floor in my hypothetical skyscraper which was the work needed to solve this conundrum.
Starting chronologically, the late psychologist Richard Gregory concocted a theory of “Top-Down Processing” in 1970 that relies heavily on inferences, past experiences, and preconceived notions. In his research, Gregory deduced that about 90% of what a man takes in through his senses is lost before it gets to the brain, and consequently, man must lean heavily toward the facts about relating situations that he knew or experienced beforehand to construct a mental picture of present reality. For Gregory, “perception is a hypothesis” where (frequent) errors in perception come from “incorrect hypotheses” formed by the brain in an ongoing process. It could be argued that such proof for this exists in visual illusions such as the Necker cube. This theory cannot only be applied in visual illusions but also in everyday living, as Gregory argues in his theory that errors in forming a “hypothesis” in one’s process of perceiving are the norm, and from those failures one can construct the truth of the situations surrounding him.
Though, another theory devised by James Gibson in 1972 was centered around the idea of “Bottom-Up Processing”. He embodied the idea throughout his career that perception was direct and “not subject to hypotheses testing” as Gregory claimed. Claiming that there was enough sensory detail in the world to not be consistently fooled and subject to consistent self-testing, Gibson centered around his thought – “sensation is perception”. In his training of pilots for World War II, Gibson discovered what he called “optic-flow patterns” within flight, where distant destinations seemed motionless while objects passed the speeding jet at a fast rate. This, Gibson deemed, could give pilots definitive measures of their speed, direction, and altitude. Such was the evidence to a theory based on direct perception.
It seemed to me as if the two theories could coexist in every day life, as there are situations that would better apply one over the other in life. Though, there is one glaring thing that I realized while studying these two theories: perception produces a story. Whether of big or small in length or importance, every story produces a narrative in oneself that adds to a life’s memories and experiences. Sometimes that story is deemed shareable, sometimes a story is deemed too worthless to be told, and some stories are never discovered, but all stories deserve to be found and told. Why? Because these stories are the reproduction of an individual’s unique imagination and way of thinking, which has numerous and unfathomable potential. That story may be in the form of an experience such as perceiving the physical features, personality, tone of voice, or smell of a person of the opposite gender on a first date. It can take the form of watching and feeling a speeding fastball pass by you as you determine how, when, and at what speed to swing the bat. It can also be put to action by smelling the natural smells in a park or walking on a beaten path. Unbeknownst to the average reader, those examples came from perceptions that I have made based on passed experiences in my life. Perception is the cornerstone of which people’s mindsets are formed, a foundation on which people think, grow their mental vocabulary, and impact other people’s lives. Imagine a community, per say, where an abundance of unique stories like these fell into a melting pot to create a solid, handsome, unassuming bedrock that outsiders would have to search into to find its true identity?
Let me tell you the story of the time I discovered one of those bedrocks.
What makes writing this fun for myself is that I do not reside in the county of Delaware. For ten years my family and I have made the trek up Route 42 from Union County from late August until early June for my siblings and I to attend Delaware Christian School. My view of Delaware in my early days was naïve and from a first-grader’s mind. Traveling a solid twenty minutes one way to get to school, I viewed Delaware as a rather dark and unassuming town mostly because of all the rural land we had to cover to get to school. Though, I did not realize at my young age that we were really entering the county through a back door and that there was so much I had not seen. Time passed and I slowly started to watch as the cloak that was covering Delaware in my mind slowly started to be lifted. As one corner of that cloak was methodically being folded towards the center, my family and I started attending Delaware Christian sporting events and had the occasional dinners and drives through the city. I remember my first mental pictures of Delaware city being the grand architecture at Ohio Wesleyan, the overhanging sign for Bun’s Restaurant, and the bustling shops in the downtown in mid-afternoon. Though, my perception was riddled with less than attractive sights of the more unappealing parts of Delaware city, with the rundown buildings, dark allies, and seemingly cold atmosphere. Those ingredients blended together left the subject of Delaware as a rather bitter, uninviting taste in my mouth, with little that I thought was worth seeing.
Soon, though, my fifth-grade, dramatic personality soon mellowed by the time of eighth grade, where my social legs were beginning to be planted solidly beneath my body and my being a tad more mature. By then, we had made it a summer tradition to get a family pass at the Jack Florence Pool at Mingo Park. There I got to witness the community of the younger generation. I’ve seen a lot of things there that I haven’t anywhere else that really morphed my view of Delaware. I have seen teenagers laughing and rough-housing, little kids socializing in the zero-entry, moms talking with other moms and smiling, big kids helping out little kids, organized games run by the public going on in the pool, and lifeguards helping a struggling younger one down a slide or out of the zero-entry pool. Though, I have also seen scuffles between teenagers and words that are not good to utter. Such experiences started to hint to me that Delaware wasn’t the robotic, stale town that I thought it was. Those experiences would continue, as I would make more trips deeper into Delaware and slowly refining my perception of the town.
Though, the turning point of my perception of the town reached a dramatic turning point just recently. My class was having a get-together or a “class party” on the town one Friday night. We saw the movie “Now You See Me” and then went out to Whit’s Frozen Custard and surrounding businesses.
The beginning of the night was nondescript. I had been in The Strand Theater before, and as with any business such as a movie theater, it’s not in it’s purpose to reveal you to a deep aspect of the town that it’s in. The part of the night that I will remember didn’t come until I was alone. It was tiring – everyone else was full of energy and I was feeling the sleepy lag from just coming out of the movie with the fact that it was a Friday night, ending a long week. As the other guys were roughhousing, pranking, and having a good time, I lagged behind and just tried to keep up. I was having fun, no doubt, but when the other guys left Whit’s to go on their next endeavor, I decided to stay behind and take a rest on a street bench. There I rested, and quickly I realized that all that I was looking at was new to me. I don’t know if it was the angle of which I was looking at everything or the fact that it was evening and the sun was setting, but all of the sudden I saw Delaware in a light that I never have before. The wind wisped leaves up onto the sidewalk as a family passed by with the mom and dad holding hands. I heard a baby crying as a mom comforted her, and people shuffling in and out of the small shops that I once thought were barren. Meanwhile, I saw my friends in the distance talking to strangers and chasing after each other. It was real. Alive. In such a way, my perception of Delaware has continued to change and grow, but nothing has changed my perception of the town since that evening.
I think my perception of Delaware continues to transform because there was one thing that I was missing about Delaware: it’s people. It was people that constructed the successful businesses in the downtown and the historical, run-down buildings on the outskirts. It’s people that made the streets, planted the trees, and inhabited the Jack Florence Pool every summer. It was people that I was overlooking that laid the skeleton of the city that I was seeing for so long, and it is people that continue to improve the city. In a recent study done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, Delaware ranked as the number one county Ohio for their overall health factors (clinical care, health behaviors, social and economic factors, physical environment) and third overall in health outcomes. (The full study can be seen at countyhealthrankings.org.) It is the people of Delaware that have made the city what it is, and people all around should discover what Delaware is really about.
As I said earlier, writing about Delaware is fun for me because I do not live in Delaware. In this way, I will have the privilege in upcoming months to explore Delaware deeper than I have so far, and to have the greater privilege of sharing my findings with you. I do not know how the narrative will be continued. I do know, though, that the cloak that has covered Delaware in my head for the last decade is barely lifted up, and as I go through my journey of discovering what Delaware is really about, I want to shed a new light on rather undiscovered aspects of the county with a fresh perspective. Surely the routes I take in the process will differ widely between the processes of perception, but Delaware has a rather hidden story that’s worth telling, and I look forward to my attempt of uncovering more of that mysterious story.