Back in the days of my (relative) youth, aka my mid-20s, my extended circle of friends included someone (John, I believe was his name) who sang in a band. In a group conversation one day over beers, I found out that he never learned to play an instrument, despite performing in bands for years. When asked why, he replied that he didn’t want to change the way he heard music.

I remembered his reply for years, but never quite understood it until, just a couple years ago, I decided to fulfill a bucket-list goal and learn to play the bass guitar. A friend, an accomplished guitarist, accompanied me to the music store he frequents, and I got set up with a rig. I then turned to the Internet to learn the basics.

I’m still barely good enough to be considered terrible, if even that (I don’t practice remotely as much as I should or as much as it takes). But, even knowing just the barest elements of the skill, I now more fully understand John’s response to the question of learning to play an instrument. Listening to songs now, I find myself deconstructing, and isolating the bass track in my head, sometimes to my benefit, and sometimes at the expense of the composition in toto. Playing an instrument changed how I perceive music.

This realization led me to greater awareness of how I perceive other things, things I’ve had longer experience with. I practically lived in my high school’s wood shop, and I recall a realization that, on a trip through Napa Valley a few years ago, I focused and fixated on the jointery and construction details of a particularly impressive patio trellis at one tasting room, something I suspect my wife didn’t pay much attention to. That happens to me all the time – I see some construction of wood, and I naturally ponder “how would I build that?”

More recently, I recall an episode of The Americans where Keri Russell’s character was masquerading as a home health aide for a sick woman who was a noted artist. The woman insisted that Elizabeth attempt to draw, and instructed her how to look at things as “light” and “dark.” Having never studied art, I never received that sort of instruction, but it made sense… and, to the point of this essay, changed perception.

I shifted disciplines partway through my engineering career, when I was assigned to work under a senior and soon-to-retire engineer who designed spacecraft and space missions. Part of that job was designing orbits, and in time I came to “think” in the manner that objects move through space. It has ruined (well, I exaggerate) most space movies and television shows, because very few of them get it right. Instinctively, I react poorly to wrong depictions that most people have no reason to question. The same holds true for my paramedic friend, who cannot watch most first-responder shows without cringing, and for my doctor sister-in-law, who scoffs at most medical dramas. I expect the same is true for police officers watching cop shows, soldiers and military veterans watching war movies, and so forth. What we know affects what we see and hear.

This is what I suspect is the impetus behind so many young people of today finding offensiveness and bigotry under every rock, around every corner, and buried within almost any utterance. If you teach someone to automatically and subconsciously mine everything he sees, hears, or reads for hidden messages, it’s inevitable that he’ll see the world very differently than you and I do. It’s also why people of different political philosophies can draw drastically different conclusions from the same set of events or circumstances.

Some alterers of perception are beneficial. Deconstructing a song into instruments can diminish the experience, but it can also expose the mind to nuance that may have gone unnoticed, and re-listening to the song as a whole might be an even better experience. Aspiring sommeliers will repeatedly smell and taste berries, stone fruit, chalk, slate, tobacco, and countless other things to train their palates, so that they can then describe what they taste in wines to others. A “trained” eye can find nuances in art that enhance the admiration for a masterpiece.

Some are benign, or detrimental in a benign fashion. Being versed in a field, then watching a movie or television show that involves that field, and you are more likely to be taken out of the experience, lose interest in the story, and miss out on a tale otherwise well-told or well-acted. It’s not particularly earth-shattering when they get reality wrong – it’s just entertainment.

But, some cause harm. We see that in today’s toxic politics, where people are either taught or teach themselves to find hot-button stuff, to find offense where none is intended or even exists, to blinder themselves to the failings of their ideology or their leaders, and to presume the worst of their fellow citizens. Much of this can be traced back to our educational system, especially the universities that teach young people that someone’s intent doesn’t matter if they can find offensiveness in something that was said or written.

The good news is that perception can be retaught, and not just to the young. I’m proof, as are countless others who’ve taken up an art form or trade skill at a later stage of life. One key is seeing past the surface, and it can be as simple as pointing out some details or as saying “look at the light and the dark.” In political discourse, we can do this by guiding others to see things more deeply: to see the reactions and changes that their ideas will engender, to look at unintended consequences, to understand that the populace sometimes alters its behaviors when governments do things rather than simply continuing on as they have… in other words, to move beyond the shallow thinking that dominates our sound-bite political sphere.

As for helping ourselves, it’s good to hear or read stuff we don’t agree with, and not just with a deconstructive intent in mind. Understanding how others see the world, and how their perception varies from our own, is a useful step toward improving your perception, and toward building arguments that convince rather than confront.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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