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Debunking perception with Jordan Peterson

The controversial professor returns to the lecture circuit with some truly insightful tid-bits. "We don't perceive objects and infer meaning, we perceive meaning and infer objects" –Dr. Jordan Peterson
"We don't perceive objects and infer meaning, we perceive meaning and infer objects" –Dr. Jordan Peterson

This quote summarizes the seminal argument that Dr. Peterson presented to a crowded Cambridge University lecture hall almost three years after a fellowship offered to him by the university was rescinded "due to a photograph of the noted clinical psychologist standing next to a fan whose t-shirt bore an Islamophobic message".

Jordan Peterson, who in the above-mentioned quote is paraphrasing Russian Neuropsychologist Eugene Sokolov, spent much of his talk explaining the pervasiveness of this topic, ranging from innovations in AI to English literary criticisms.

In this brief post, all I want to do, however, is briefly explain the idea as well as why it is important to you and I on a day–to–day level.

Let's start with a simple and silly example that, I think, hammers home Dr. Peterson's idea quite nicely.

Çatalhöyük was a very large Neolithic proto-city settlement in southern Anatolia, which existed from approximately 7500 BC to 5700 BC, and flourished around 7000 BC. In July 2012, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is located overlooking the Konya Plain, southeast of the present-day city of Konya (ancient Iconium) in Turkey. The eastern settlement forms a mound which would have risen about 20m above the plain at the time of the latest Neolithic occupation. There is also a smaller settlement mound to the west and a Byzantine settlement a few hundred meters to the east. (Wiki)
Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak / Unsplash

Imagine that you are an archaeologist (a real one–not Indiana Jones) working in the Middle East . Let's say, one day you uncover something! It is maneuverable, can be used to hit things, but it is not so large that you could use it as a weapon.

What do you think this is? A hammer! (you don't say)

Let's take a step back and analyze what just happened and place it in the context of what Sokolov and Peterson have to say. Essentially, you, the noted archaeologist probably saw a small object with a handle and a weighted head with your eyes. But that isn't necessarily what you perceived, it is what you sensed–there is a difference.

Here is how your brain stores some information

Let's take the example of your visual cortex to explore this. Your visual cortex gets some of the information that is collected by your eyes. Now, let's say you are seeing a hammer for the first time (long before you become an archaeologist) and your parent/guardian is explaining to you what hammers do–they are used to hit things.  

The meaning associated with the 'hammer image' that you have just sensed through your eyes also gets stored in your visual cortex. That way, the next time you see something that looks somewhat similar to what you saw before–your brain goes: "oh! this is something that I can use to hit things".

So when you are at the archaeological site and you uncover this object covered in dust, you think: "oh! I think that this can be used to hit things".  You infer, therefore, that what you are seeing is some sort of hammer.

You perceived the meaning that the object had for you first!

Another really cool example of this

Photo by Benyamin Bohlouli / Unsplash

An experienced nurse gets called into a patient's room. They see a decreasing heart rate (bradycardia), but that isn't what they perceive–knowing the patient's medical history, what may come into their mind is that the patient's heart is failing and that they need to get a defibrillator and call the attending physician. That is what this sign means to them.

This sign could mean something else for a nurses in palliative care–who are with patients at the ends of their lives. Maybe they see it as time to call the family, to ensure that the person is comfortable.

Both of these nurses skipped a ton of steps in their thought processes. Nobody was thinking–I see a decrease of X%, which when paired with Y morbidity can yield A or B or C problem. They perceived the underlying meaning.

Thinking heuristically allows for faster response. It allows for meaningful connections. But it can also be the root of mistakes.

One Final Example

My brother recently landed a feature role in an amateur theatre production of “Singing In The Rain”. Despite what the title infers - there is nothing amateur about it. Production value is high, and the acting takes you out of the auditorium and into your own magical sing-song world. Needless to say - a very proud brother right here.
Photo by Kyle Head / Unsplash

About a month ago, I wrapped up a three month weekly improv acting class at the Second City.

For one of our warmups,  we partnered up, received a topic (e.g., fast food chains), and then proceeded in a back and forth, listing off as many fast food chains one after the other until one person couldn't name any more.



–Tim Hortons


This exercise becomes surprisingly difficult quite fast. For one, I don't eat much fast food. My favourite is Burger King by the way. But secondly, what I realized is that when I think of fast food, I think a bit about a few chain restaurants but more broadly about what fast food means to me. For me, fast food means, skipping school with my dad, eating only sandwiches at the student cafeteria in my first year of university and of course being unhealthy etc.

Listing restaurants sequentially is actually quite unnatural. We perceive meaning, not objects.

Here is another article on Jordan Peterson's lecture.

How do we perceive the world? | Hannah Gal | The Critic Magazine
The problem of perception is one Jordan Peterson has been attempting to wrestle with for a long time. “How much do we bring to the act of perception” he asked an attentive Cambridge university…

Here is what I am reading:

The Communist Manifesto - Karl Marx

  • Almost done, 10 pages left.

The Henna Artist - Alka Joshi

  • Just finished it yesterday actually.  Centres around domestic abuse and violence against women. My biggest critique is that while the book is set in Jaipur just after Indian Independence, the ideas, language, and expressions don't match the era or really India at all.
  • I have no major problem with the overall plot (girl escapes abusive marriage to become a henna artist for Jaipur's elite, meets long lost sister etc.) even though it is a bit soapy. The real problem exists at the micro level, in the scenes that the authors constructs.
  • Maybe I'll do a more thorough review in which I explain using explicit quotes.

Capital in the 21st Century - Thomas Piketty

  • I have honestly taken a pause.

Walden - Thoreau

  • Same thing, I have taken a pause. I really do find that I remember most of what is going on even if I put a book down for a few months.