The Persistence of Vision

Our eyes offer one of the five specialized means by which our mind is able to form a picture of the world. The eye is a remarkable instrument, having certain characteristics to help us process the light we see in such a way that our mind can create meaning from it.

Take the motion picture, the scanning of an image for television, and the sequential reproduction of the flickering visual images they produce. These work in part because of an optical phenomenon that has been called “persistence of vision” and its psychological partner, the phi phenomenon—the mental bridge that the mind forms to conceptually complete the gaps between the frames or pictures.

Although the term persistence of vision has come to be seen as inadequate to fully describe this very complex physiological reality, it remains a standard expression and, as such, it serves as a useful metaphor.

In effect, the process we know as persistence of vision plays a role in keeping the world from going pitch black every time we blink our eyes. Whenever light strikes the retina, the brain retains the impression of that light for about a 10th to a 15th of a second (depending on the brightness of the image, retinal field of view, and color) after the source of that light is removed from sight. This is due to a prolonged chemical reaction. As a result, the eye cannot clearly distinguish changes in light that occur faster than this retention period. The changes either go unnoticed or they appear to be one continuous picture to the human observer.

We use this fundamental fact of the way we see to our advantage. When we go to the movies, we know that a motion picture creates an illusion of a constantly lit screen by flashing individual photographs in rapid succession. Even though the movie screen appears to be constantly lit, it is in fact dark part of the time. It was the flickering image on the screen that gave rise to the term flicks in the early days of movies. Today’s motion pictures flash images on the screen at 24 frames per second (or 48, in that each frame is flashed twice) for a flicker-free picture. You may remember making little “flipbooks” as a child. They worked on this same principle: the more images per second, the smoother the picture.

Television, too, uses a complicated form of intermittent light impulses to literally build the picture we see. If an image can be built up quickly enough, the eye will be unaware that this process is even occurring. American television actually transmits and recreates 30 complete images per second to give the illusion of a single continuous picture.

I Think, Therefore I See

Biologists tell us that the eye does not function to replicate the world we come in contact with but instead to sense, process and encode the motion, patterns and colors of the light we see into something our mind will interpret. We process this data in connection with information coming from all the other organs that respond to our environment, thus combining the new data with similar information already stored in our memory. As a result, no two people see anything exactly alike.

The mind’s default setting operates in much the same way. We develop patterns of thought or mental models that shape what we see or perceive and thus what we think, as well as how we will choose to think about new information that comes our way. We persist in or hold on to thinking that connects with the mental pictures or models we have already formed. So as we go from scene to scene in our lives, our mind fills in the gaps between our experiences using the same old familiar thinking. It connects our thoughts and experiences in such a way as to keep them as consistent and uniform as possible with what we already think.

Our eyes see what they want to see; our ears hear what it’s nice to hear; and the worst type of deaf person is the one who only wants to hear one thing.”

Luc de Brabandere, The Forgotten Half of Change

Call it a persistence of thought. We see what makes sense to us. We develop beliefs and opinions consistent with what is already in our heads. Anything that is inconsistent with that image or contrary to our current ideas goes unnoticed or is ignored, so that we may maintain that continuous, uninterrupted picture of our world.

Just as what we see is governed by what we think, so what we perceive as real—our feelings, thoughts and assumptions—is based on what we think is real. This sounds obvious, but it has far-reaching, often overlooked implications.

Our mind is constantly trying to make sense of our world. We pull in unfamiliar information, and our mind tries to connect it with what we already know. To facilitate this process, we create mental models through which to filter our experiences.

International business consultant Luc de Brabandere, a self-described corporate philosopher, reminds us in his book The Forgotten Half of Change (2005): “It is not a question of intelligence, but rather one of our perception of the world around us. . . . We see and hear things in a variable way, and certainly differently from one another, because only the hardware is common to all of us. We can even become blind or deaf when confronted with some situations that will be glaringly or blaringly evident to others. It is therefore hardly surprising that, from time to time, we do get stuck”—stuck in the same old thinking.

Self-Validating Illusions

The mental gymnastic that our mind goes through can stabilize us, but it can also leave us out of sync, chasing dragons and acting on what doesn’t exist or isn’t true. We can find ourselves reacting to people and situations in ways that are inappropriate, as our reality is skewed. It can cause us to be rigid and unteachable, impeding our growth. This is especially true when something is discussed or brought to our attention that doesn’t fit in with what we want, or how we want to live or explain our lives.

Benjamin N. Cardozo, a widely respected judge who served as a U.S. Supreme Court justice in the 1930s, once said: “In the life of the mind as in life elsewhere, there is a tendency toward the reproduction of kind.” Accordingly, we surround ourselves with and get feedback from friends who think the same way we do. But this can limit us when it comes to growing and understanding more and taking in a bigger picture.

Every prejudice is like a pair of spectacles with deforming lenses or like directional loudspeakers. They make us shortsighted or hard of hearing.” 

Luc de Brabandere, The Forgotten Half of Change

Authors Yoram (Jerry) Wind and Colin Crook explain in The Power of Impossible Thinking (2004): “We increasingly live in a familiar world that can be considered as a benign illusion—benign, because it helps us move through the world efficiently, but an illusion nonetheless.” This should cause us to proceed with caution, but all too often we plunge ahead, confident that we know what we really only think we know. By asking ourselves with some degree of humility whether that which we perceive to be so is simply what we have preprogrammed our minds to see, we may find that the problems we perceive are in fact nothing more than preconceived ideas. The danger, of course, is that real issues may be ignored.

So how do we deal with real issues? Albert Einstein observed that problems can’t be solved by the same level of thinking that created them in the first place. Thinking about a situation in the wrong way can literally condemn us to relive the same experiences over and over again. Little will change until we change our thinking.

Mythology and the Persistent Self-Image

In Confronting Reality, management consultants Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan point out that “avoiding reality is a basic and ubiquitous human tendency. [Many] do it unconsciously but also may do it knowingly: sometimes, it seems, there’s just no choice.” So we create myths.

A little more than 40 years ago, in June 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a commencement address at Yale University. The context of his speech was economics, but his comments have application in other areas of life as well. He said, “As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. . . . Mythology distracts us everywhere.”

The myth is indeed more dangerous than the lie. And the myths we create about ourselves can be the most dangerous. The lies we can identify; we know they are there. They are deliberate. But the myths are persistent, reassuring, and created unwittingly so that we deceive ourselves. Our own mythologies distract us from growth. Again, we become people who will not learn, unteachable, thinking things don’t apply to us because we’ve already thought them through.

If we are growing, however, we should at the very least begin to find a deeper meaning to what we think we already know. Perhaps there is even room for self-improvement. So we need to rethink, to reframe, to go back over it again and again. To learn, we need to unlearn. And to grow, we must change the way we think.

In The Power of Impossible Thinking the authors explain, “If we can understand that the majority of what we are seeing and thinking at any given moment is coming from inside rather than from external stimuli, we make a great leap forward.”

There is an old maxim: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as saying that “people only see what they are prepared to see.” As we go through each day, our experiences and observations change us. So what we didn’t see yesterday we may see today, but only if we are consciously going over the old material in our heads and challenging ourselves on a daily basis.

Question the Questions

Unless we make a conscious effort to break this self-reinforcing cycle, this persistence of thought, we will go nowhere. Neither personal growth nor growth in our knowledge base is logical or automatic. It takes doing what we are not naturally inclined to do, and it takes a lot of effort. Getting out of our own way is generally the first step in the growth process.

Significantly, that growth depends on the questions we ask about ourselves, not the habitual answers. Political writer Antony Jay pointed out that “the uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a creative mind to spot wrong questions” (Management and Machiavelli: An Inquiry Into the Politics of Corporate Life, 1967). What’s needed is a creative mind that can switch gears and see from a new perspective. We need better questions, not the same old answers. If we’re not growing and deepening our self-understanding, we’re not asking the right questions.

Ask questions that cause you to rethink your assumptions. Is the problem really a problem? Is what I am doing or thinking working for me? What should I stop or start thinking or doing to change my situation?

Part of the problem is that the solution is often paradoxical to what we already think—which is why we are stuck. Thinking outside our normal frames of reference makes it possible to see unexpected solutions. Looking at something differently or from someone else’s point of view often brings the solution dramatically into focus.

Moving the mind in new directions takes a lot of practice. You cannot turn the skill on and off like tap water.”

Charles W. McCoy, Why Didn’t I Think of That?

Confronting reality and seeing ourselves as we are is not something we can fully and completely do alone. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that the heart of man is more deceitful than anything else. He makes the case that we can’t truly see ourselves through our own eyes but only through the eyes of God. But seeing as God sees requires aligning our thinking and understanding with His through the practice of His Word. It’s a process. Yet, at some level, we should begin to challenge the way we think and as a result the way we act. New behavior will follow from a new way of thinking.

Moving forward from a persistence of thought requires that we look at our thinking in a new light and then reframe it. Change can happen when we see things differently. To paraphrase President Kennedy, the time has come for us to move on from the reassuring repetition of stale thinking to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with the reality of ourselves. Only then can we grow.