Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When Seeing Isn't Believing

Barbara: I remember watching the film What The Bleep Do We Know? several years ago. I don’t know if any of you have seen it, but it’s an interesting look into the quantum physics of life. It’s very accessible and easy to watch and understand, but also very hypothetical, so you can grain-of-salt everything in it. But we loved the questions the filmmakers posed and some of the arguments their scientists and experts offered, and we had lots of really fascinating family discussions about the theories. 

One theory that made the strongest, most lasting impression on me (and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I may be screwing it up) was that if we have no experience with something, we can’t (or have great difficulty) processing it. They gave the example of Columbus and his ships arriving on the Bahamian shores for the first time. Apparently, an island village populated by hundreds of indigenous people was located in direct line of their arrival. Columbus’s ships would have been well within sight of the villagers while the ships approached and then anchored and before the European sailors came ashore and the two different peoples finally made initial contact. But apparently the villagers DID NOT SEE THE SHIPS. Even though these were enormous vessels, and even though they were anchored for DAYS! Only the villagers’ shaman was finally able to discern that there was something there, and he had to explain to the villagers what he saw before they could see—and therefore process––them. HUGE SHIPS. THREE OF THEM. (Now, please don’t ask me how our historians know this fact—is this something passed down through stories or through detailed accounts? I don’t remember this being addressed in the film.) 

I was blown away by this fact. That you could see something, but NOT see it if you didn’t understand it. I think the film put forth the notion that if aliens indeed came among us, we might not see them because we wouldn’t understand them. Okay, so that’s my long-winded set-up for my own experience: 

My husband and I were in a deep sleep one night. Suddenly, I was jolted awake—by the sound of faint but insistent rustling. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I wondered if I was hearing a mouse that had somehow infiltrated our to-that-point rodent-free fortress. I was apoplectic. Don’t think I need to explain such abstract fear to any of you? Well, I reached over and turned on my bedside light because I had to see what I was dealing with (and then get my husband to actually deal with it). And then I saw it––this fat, little CREATURE on the ground near our bedroom door, just sitting there, staring off into space. I have had experience with mice (our last house was a hell-hole for them), and this was NOT a mouse. And it seemed way too round to be a rat (god forbid). It felt rodent-like, but for the life of me, I COULD NOT identify what it was. To make matters worse, my husband was still fast asleep, not yet on his white horse ready to rescue me from this mysterious infiltration. Would this creature still rise up and attack me? Would it scurry into my walls to forever torment me with its midnight rustlings? Terrified, I nudged hubby awake. 

Groggy and eminently calm, P. looked up and said: “What’s Cinnamon doing on the floor?” What? … Cinnamon? … Really? And then I saw the creature for what it was: our younger daughter’s beloved, adorable, and slightly manic hamster, Cinnamon—who had lived with us for almost TWO YEARS! Somehow M. had left the cage unlatched and Cinnamon, poor thing, in her all-night exploring frenzy, had bumped against the open door of her cage and tumbled off the shelf where the cage is perched and landed in a pile of M.’s clothes (the one time I was THRILLED she doesn’t throw her dirty clothes in the hamper) and decided, what the hell, she was going to explore the ol’ household for posterity’s sake. 

Thank goodness, Cinnamon was none the worse for her little adventure, but I have still not gotten over that utterly disorienting feeling of confusion I experienced on looking and looking and LOOKING at her and not understanding what the hell I was seeing. 

So, point is, don’t ever ask me what’s what because what the bleep do I know? 

Deb: Incredible! They could not see what they just could not take in. There are mornings in front of the mirror like that for me.

We were in the Congo in January and we were deep in the jungle in a very small village. This village just happened to be in a flight path and we asked our interpreter what the kids in the village thought of the planes flying overhead all day and he said that they think they are big birds. They just can’t take the truth in.

And from Cinnamon the Hamster’s POV, I’m sure he was staring out in space thinking, “If I knew the humans were unconscious when it gets dark, I would have partied like this long ago!”


  1. I'm glad it was only Cinnamon visiting! Your story reminds me of the situations when you see someone, a neighbor, or coworker maybe, but out of context and so you don't recognize them at first. Like if your neighbor is filling their car at the gas pump beside you, or a coworker in the library. Sometimes it takes a moment for the connection to click!

  2. Deb, there are mornings in front of the mirror like that for me too. Also, in front of my life.

    But oh well. ;)

  3. Joanne, I had meant to mention that phenomenon too. That happens to me all the time! It's very weird.

    And, Gae and Deb, yes, yes. The unfamiliar person in the mirror, argh...

  4. I really like this post because it is true. AND expecially for me if i don't understand something i just don't see it. It just really realte's to me. and with the hamester cinnamon,if i woke up and seen something in my bedroom like that I would be afraid too. I have a reallllllly big thing when it comes to small animals like that. I hate things like mice and rats and yes even little hamsters, because they remind me of mice.

  5. "They could not see what they just could not take in. There are mornings in front of the mirror like that for me."

    Oh, God. Groan. No truer words have ever been spoken.

  6. teehee--Oh, I love it! Cinnamin is SO CUTE! I think perspective, too, is huge. One of my professors (I have an MS in Psych) told a story about being on the Willamette River in a boat as it got dark and seeing this strange hovering light--thinking UFO or some such thing, then noting another one. It took him a LONG time to realize a really huge barge was coming straight at them--it was just too close to them for them to realize the two lights on opposite sides of them were part of the same thing. (they got out of there fast, but almost got hit)

    When you are thinking one way, it can be REALLY hard to change speeds!

  7. Now that's a scary one. But why does it happen, I wonder, with things that are familiar to us -- like people and things we see every day???

  8. Me to my son: I told you to put all your dirty clothes in the hamper. Pick up that sock.

    Son looking around and around: What sock?

    Me: That sock! That one right there! By your left foot!

    Son looks all around left foot and fails to see the sock that is almost touching him.

    Me: Pick up the sock and put it in your hamper!

    Son: What sock?!?!?

    Me: THAT SOCK!!!

    Son FINALLY seeing the sock his eyes have passed over at least a dozen times: OOoohhh! That sock! I didn't see it.


  9. I am kinda like that now that I am in collage.My friends may see something that I can be looking the same thing but because I don't get it I don't see it.Like when the professiora ask a question in english the other day, about a book we were reading Yes I was following a long, and I had read the book, but I didn't know what he was talking about, so I didn't see what he was asking me. I just did not see it because I didn;t understand it. I am like that sometimes.

  10. I loved that film What the Bleep ( I own it) loved that story about not seeing the ships. You know what I can't see? That I'm not still thirty.

  11. Yes, yes, I can also relate to the mirror thing. I had my passport picture taken today and had the same feelings: who is that ghastly creature staring back at me?

    I have heard that story about the ships not being seen before. Somehow, I don't believe it. (I loved the film by the way.) I mean, if a big black hexagonal thing with green feet sticking out of it and giant red lips appeared on my door step, I'd definitely see it, wouldn't I? Or am I missing something? A plane looks like a bird and so that deduction doesn't surprise me, but I can't buy that they didn't SEE the ships, even if they didn't understand them.
    Hehehe to the socks....

  12. If someone could teach me how not to see the dirt, dust and hairballs in my house, I'd be one happy camper. Alas, it seems I am far too familiar with them!

  13. Between Lisa's dust and Rigel's son's sock, what a useful tool this "not seeing" could be...

    And, Rosina, I do kinda believe it, only because it happened so viscerally to me. Maybe the natives thought the ships were gathering clouds in the horizon, or waves. Something else legit...


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