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Reality Is What You Make It or the Gorilla in the Room

Updated on September 27, 2018
CJStone profile image

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.



The tree and the elephant

What's a tree?

How do you see it?

Is it the same tree when it is in bloom on a sunny spring morning as when it appears in silhouette against a stormy sky in the depths of winter?

A tree consists of many things: of leaves, of shoots, of twigs, of bark, of buds, blossoms and branches. There are unseen parts too, a network of roots reaching deep into the earth and whole worlds of fungal growth which nuzzle through its fibres.

There's not one tree, but many. Each tree is different depending on your mood, on the day, on which part you focus, on how you view it and from what angle. Which tree is the "real" tree? Is the tree you can't see any less real than the tree you can?

If our perception of such a simple thing as a tree can change so dramatically, then our view of reality itself must shift and change at least as much.

There's the famous story about the blind men and the elephant, as told in a number of different cultures.

It goes something like this:

Several blind men are led into a room and asked to touch an elephant and then describe it. One man touches the leg and says it is like a pillar. Another man touches the tail and says it is like a rope. The next man touches the ear and says it is like a fan. The fifth man touches the shoulder and says it is like a wall, while the last man touches the tusk and says it is like a pipe.

You could tell a similar story about a tree.

It's a parable about the way we understand the world. We are all constrained by our individual perceptions.

What is "real" reality?

My own opinion is that belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence. The more certitude one assumes, the less there is left to think about, and a person sure of everything would never have any need to think about anything and might be considered clinically dead under current medical standards, where absence of brain activity is taken to mean that life has ended...."

— Robert Anton Wilson

Inattentional blindness

You might say that these men were limited by their disability, and that is why they couldn't take in the whole elephant, but there's a famous experiment by Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris, first carried out in 1999, which demonstrates that we are all capable of not seeing.

The experiment involves a video of two teams passing basket balls back and forth. One team is dressed in black, the other team is dressed in white. The video lasts about a minute, and the viewer is asked to count how many times the white team passes the ball.

The teams are darting about, dodging in and out, circling and weaving, passing the balls between themselves. It's hard to keep a track on the action, but you count the passes and confirm the result, which is then displayed on the screen at the end.

After this you are asked to watch the film again, only this time you are told not to count the passes.

It is only on the second viewing that you realise that in the midst of the action a man in a gorilla suit had walked determinedly across the basket ball court, stood still for a few seconds, beat his chest vigorously, and then walked off again.

You were too busy counting the passes to notice the gorilla in the room.

I've seen this film myself, and it is startling. The first time you watch there's no one there. The next time you watch, there he is, a man dressed up like a gorilla, too obvious to miss. The process is called "inattentional blindness".

What this shows is that sometimes we see only what we are told to see. It is this mechanism that magicians use for their sleight of hand tricks. They divert our attention from the important action by focussing our brains on irrelevant details.

The War on Terror

So it is with the news these days and with the war on terror. It's not a real war since there is no discernable enemy as such. There's no army. No generals. No troops. No chain of command. No political leadership. No spokesmen. No one to negotiate terms with.

It's a catch-all phrase by which a diverse set of people with varying outlooks from different parts of the world can be lumped together to give the impression that they are all part of the same conspiracy, united in their common hatred of our values.

It is by this process that an Afghan tribesman, an Iraqi insurgent, a Pakistani militant, a Lebanese patriot and a dentist from Forest Gate can be made to appear as all part of the same movement.

The only thing they have in common is that they are all Muslims.

The irony is, of course, that by declaring this a war, and by acting upon it in ways that rip real people's lives apart - by torture and imprisonment and the indiscriminate use of force - we have made it come true. We have created the conditions in which terrorism can thrive.

And meanwhile, behind this smoke-and-mirrors facade, this noisy game of death and distraction, some people are doing very nicely thank you.

One man's loss is another man's gain. One man's crisis is another man's business-opportunity. The gorilla in the room is checking his share options. He made ten million dollars while you were reading this.

© 2008 Christopher James Stone


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