Is our perception of the world accurate or are we missing something?

Alfred Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits wrapped in white paper from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something and asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took one. "Nice biscuit, don't you think," said Korzybski, while he himself took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog's head and the words "Dog Cookies." The students looked at the package and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. "You see," Korzybski remarked, "I have just demonstrated that people don't just eat food, but also words and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter. 

Alfred Korzybski developed a field called general semantics that focussed on how our language can influence our perception, our world as well as the feelings we associate with experiences. He is most famously known for his dictum The map is not the territory. He suggested that our perception of what is going on in the world is not actually what is going on. Our perception is only a map and not the actual world, therefore everyone has their own unique model of the world. 

The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte illustrated the concept of "perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves”. He used this literally in his work, most famously in a piece entitled The Treachery of Images which consists of a drawing of a pipe with the caption, Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe).



So what is the cause of this “treachery”? From a more scientific perspective, the world or reality provides an unfathomable level of stimulus often cited as 2 million bits of information. We as receivers of this information have 5 senses as our antennae. What we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Receiving this information has a capacity (7 plus or minus 2, George. A. Miller ) that forces us to decide what is relevant and what should be deleted. We will then take this “relevant” information and process it. This processing is performed by a filter, a filter that we have developed over a lifetime and is made up of our personal experiences and our understanding.


This can be made very apparent with even close friends, experiencing and interpreting the same event differently, which creates countless and endless debates around sports, politics, tragedy and success. 

Being aware of the principle the map is not the territory allows us to question our own understanding constantly. We can either firstly critique our own filter and how we processed the event or secondly reflect on information from the event that we maybe didn't acknowledge. We can also understand why others differ from ourselves. 

I would suggest the first and easiest way to change our representations of an event would be the latter, recall the event and think about what did actually happen that you’re not paying attention to, is there anything that you are missing that would lead to a different perception. Ask other people who experienced the event how they interpret it and how they felt about it with an openness to change. 

What leads them to believe it? Other peoples maps of the world can assist in closing the gap between our map of the world and what actually happened, reality. I feel we naturally go through this process and ask others to create a true representation, although sometimes not to our own benefit or to the benefit of the mutual agreement. We can easily be closed to change in the pursuit of being right.  

Being open to change is to look into your own filtering, what has caused us to filter the way we did. What generalisations, deletions or distortions of the event have we made. What has lead to our decisions or assumptions?  As Alfred Korzybski suggests the language we have used is usually a good flagging system for these. Listen to the words you use whilst analysing. Question alternative interpretations of the event and reframe it. When we physiologically feel positive or we are provided with relief in our understandng of the event you have most likely been successful.