TED Conversations

Sophie Rand

Student Engineering, The Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art


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Can we ever know how another person "senses" the world?

In my Bioelectricity class this week, we learned about the cells
in our body that help us sense our environment: chemosensors in our
tongue that help us sense taste, for example, the photoreceptors in
our eye that sense light, and the hair cells in our ears that sense
the mechanical vibrations of sound, to name a few.

As a result, I recently revisited my answer to the age-old question of
“how do I know that the blue I see is the same blue you see?” that was
so startling and exciting to most 3rd graders playing baby Kierkegaard
a little bit differently. An answer could be that we just have to
trust that perception is guided by biology and that humans are
biologically identical to within 80% of our biological systems.

This answer, of course, raises new questions: even if you and I may
perceive the same blue, is that blue "real?" Where does sensation
leave off and perception begin, and how may we trust ourselves as we
try to compare them? Can we ever know how another person "senses" the
world? Would love to hear your thoughts!


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    Feb 18 2012: From my perspective, this is one of the fundamental reasons why communication is such an important area of study. In traditional, functional models of communication (those that are most commonly adopted in business contexts and in popular cultural contexts), communication is merely expressing your viewpoint articulately. Communication is much, much more than that.

    Dialogic communication, or dialogue, is the process by which individuals come together to create new meaning. In other words, each communicator comes into the interaction with their own percpetions grounded in their own experiences and positionality within the social context in which they exist. Their social positioning impacts the way they perceive the world, and this impacts their approach to communicative interactions. In other words, their perspective is uniquely shaped by their identities and how those identities are perceived within a specific historical and social context. All of this shapes the way they perceive the world.

    Contrary to popular ideas about communication, rather than seeking to impose a particular perspective, dialogue would prescribe that individuals seek to not only understand one another's perspective, but then be open to how all perspectives involved in the exchange will influence the meaning that emerges between the communicators. We are not attempting to compete with one another to have our perceptions of the world accepted as preferable...we are simply attempting to share our perceptions and remain open to others so we can negotiate a sense of shared perception that emerges from our communication about individual perception.

    It's discussions like these that remind us of what communication is really supposed to be about--opening us up the the world around us rather than imposing our perspective on the world around us.

    I offer a more in depth example of what I mean in my blog: http://kathy-momphd.blogspot.com/2011/10/our-responsibility.html
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      Feb 18 2012: What you say about how dialogic communication brings new meaning is definitely true-- also makes me wonder if attempting to communicate how someone experiences a perception might affect the perception due to power of suggestion...yout hink the blue looks like a royal blue and your friend says i think that's actually because it might be a shade of indigo, next time you look at that blue it may look different...

      what do we think of that, people of the TED world?
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        Feb 18 2012: Ultimately, all perception is filtered by the institution of language, and therefore cannot be understood without the language in which it is articulated, both internally in how we think about it and externally/socially in we communicate with others about our experience. We experience nothing that is not filtered through the institution of language and the frame of reference it shapes as we encounter the world...so my experience and perception of one thing will always be unique--and will always be an interpretation of the experience through language, well before I articulate my perception externally. Our communication with others about these experiences adds complexity to the process, as these other communicators also possess "filters" that are inherently empowering and limiting in facilitating understanding.

        As you mention, each communicator will impact the other, and often social positioning and varying degrees of power within the interaction can lead to an unequal influence. This is precisely why we have an obligation to better understand and embrace dialogue as we interact with others. We have this responsibility to ourselves, to others and to the world that we co-create in our communicative processes. As we strive to understand our world, we communicate with others, some of whom share similar and others who share completely different perceptions, but all are unique--and all should be regarded as being of equal value. For me, that's one of the most beautiful aspects of our humanity--when we engage it and embrace it.

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