Tuesday, February 23, 2021

If the World Disappears When I Close My Eyes

Two-year-old Jonathan put a blanket over his head.

"Where did Jonathan go?" His parents pretended to look for him. "Where is he?"

Jonathan giggled under his blanket. He had played this game before. 

A couple months earlier, he had played the game the other way. He had "discovered" that when he closed his eyes, the world disappeared. It had frightened him at first. He would blink quickly, not wanting, I reckon, to risk losing the world forever, but as he became more confident that the world would return, he took to closing his eyes for minutes at a time. "Everything is gone," he would say, at first with awe, but then matter-of-factually. This hiding under a blanket was a new game for him, an extension of the old one: if the world disappears when I close my eyes, maybe I can disappear as well.

As adults we find his mistaken understanding to be cute, one that reveals misunderstandings about the nature of perception, but at the same time shows us that he's working to build a theory of mind: he was considering the world from our perspective, getting it wrong, but a valiant effort nonetheless . . . 

But maybe it's we adults who are wrong. There is an equal chance that we are.

In his book The Case Against Reality, cognitive scientist David Hoffman tells us that according to the mathematical modeling he's done, there is a zero percent chance that what we perceive through our senses is really what's there. Indeed, his theory is that what we experience as reality is merely a kind of data construct that we ourselves create. What we see, hear, feel, taste, and touch are all things our consciousness creates in order to make sense of the universe so that, in accordance with the Theory of Evolution, we increase our chances of survival. 

The metaphor he uses are icons on our computer screen. Say there is a blue square there that represents an email you've written. We know that the email really isn't actually a blue square. The icon is just an interface that represents that email. The trashcan icon we might drag it into is likewise not an actual trashcan. The reality behind our email icon and that trashcan is a process of circuitry and software that most of us don't understand, nor do we need to in order to interact with our email through this icon interface. Hoffman's theory, which he calls Conscious Realism, asserts that our brain makes icons of everything we perceive and that the "real" universe remains hidden to us like what is really happening when we write an email. As he says, "Our perceptions must be taken seriously, but not literally."

Another metaphor he likes to use is to imagine yourself playing a virtual reality game. You're wearing a headset and as you turn your head, the program renders what appear to be objects in the direction you are looking. When you look in another direction, it deletes those representations of objects and creates other representations to simulate a changed perspective. This, he proposes, is similar to what happens when we look around in the real world. If we are not perceiving an object with at least one of our senses, it simply doesn't exist until we once more are in a position to perceive it.

So maybe, if this outlandish theory is correct, Jonathan was right to conclude that the visual part of his world disappeared when he closed his eyes. Perhaps his insight was not a developmental stage at all, but rather a glimpse into the reality behind our perceptions that is no longer available to us adults. 

The world of literature is full of examples of children being able to perceive things adults cannot: like Peter Pan, The Chronicle of Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland. In these books, it's the adults, in their calcification, who don't see the things that children can. 

Those of us who spend our days with young children know that they often perceive the world more accurately than we do. For instance, they are creatures of the moment, not fretting about the past or future, a perspective that jibes with what both physicists and philosophers tell us about the world. The present is all we ever have, and young child live as if this is true, playing according to their desires, while we fill the present with mundane chores in anticipation of a future that will never come. 

They know that the solution to homelessness is to give people homes. 

They are born keenly aware that the people in their lives, their parents and family, are more important than anything else.

They don't hide their emotions behind false smiles or stuff them until they take the shape of monsters. Children know to let their feelings out, to feel them, and to get on with their life of doing.

We say that children grow out of these phases as they become more mature, but as I consider Jonathan under his blanket, I wonder if we, as a society, really just do a number on them. We've become invested in persuading them, and, in turn, ourselves, that the storybooks are fantasy, that the present is merely a fulcrum between feelings of guilt about the past and worry about the future, that the problem of homelessness is soooo complicated, that our family and friends can wait, and that our emotions make us weak or rude or ugly.

I doubt there are any preschool educators who haven't at least considered how different our world would be if only we could take children seriously, especially the very young ones, who have not yet been taught the dubious lesson that the world doesn't disappear when they close their eyes. 


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