A Night in the Desert: an Introduction to Perception vs Reality

One of the topics that fascinates me the most in philosophy and psychology, and will therefore feature most heavily on this blog, is the difference between perception and reality. This is basically about the difference between subjective reality, which is the way we see the world, and objective reality, which is how it really is. This is by no means a new concept- ancient philosophers were discussing it long before even Socrates and Plato had their say.

 

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Yep… we’re going deep today.

 

But this isn’t just a fancy philosophical concept to ruminate on- the way you see the world has a huge impact on your life, from your view of yourself and other people to your beliefs about the future and your ability to influence it. Understanding that your reality isn’t the only way of looking at things is a really powerful idea.

There’s a bunch of stuff relating to this idea that I want to talk about, from its application in psychology to its portrayal in science fiction. But first, by way of introduction to the concept of subjective reality, let me share a story with you. Or rather, two stories. Presented here, without amendment or comment, are two accounts of the same event. They are taken verbatim from mine and Liz’s travel journals from our trip to Morocco in 2013. Specifically they are about the night we spent in the Sahara desert. I believe they perfectly illustrate the point that reality is totally subjective. Plus they’re totally hilarious.

Liz’s Journal Entry

Drove through lots more stunning scenery. Ended up driving through this incredible giant oasis of palm trees and green, running along a river and some mountains. There were lots of women washing colourful clothes and rugs in the river. Ended up at sunset in Zagora which is where we were getting the camels from. Very glad to get out of the coach.

 

lizcamel
Liz’s Camel diagrams

 

Place we arrived was not as deserty as I imagined. I called my camel Jonathan, Paul called his Raul. Camels are not overly comfortable- they sway back and forth a LOT and although you are sat on blankets, ooo the crotch pain. Paul may no longer be able to have children. Journey was cool. Pitch black with only a few lights in the distance- beautiful looking up at the stars- I saw a shooting star. Very difficult to stand up once I got off the camel 45 minutes later. The camp was cool. Sharing a tent laden with blankets with Paul and two Italian girls. The others just shout “England!” at us when they want to get our attention. “Coca-Cola” and “Nutella” are also universal words.

Went into the main tent for dinner. You have to take your shoes off. Had ‘Berber whisky’ (mint tea) with our hosts. Discovered the most ADORABLE KITTEN EVER living under our table. One of the Italian men (who looks really tough) went all soppy and fawned over it calling it “piccolo”. Ate a big communal Berber tagine for mains where you all just dig in, and then sat outside the tent into the dark with the Berber men on their drums and dancing. One of them had these big clanking metal maracas which he went a bit insane with.

Paul saw a scorpion run across the floor and freaked out (still not sure it was a scorpion*). Finally called it a night and Paul and I headed back to the tent where he proceeded to freak the hell out about scorpions and spiders. Bless. Checked his bed for him and he squirted bug spray EVERYWHERE (cos that would really help **) and freaked out lots. Took some sleeping pills, comfy, warm… night.

Annotations from Paul:

* It was

** F*** you

Paul’s Journal Entry

Road is rough. Sorry for bad writing.

Now in very deserty, mountainy landscape. Civilisation getting less common. Camels getting more frequent. Eventually reached Zagora, a surprisingly large city on the edge of the desert. Stocked up on water. Terrain much more sandy and less hilly. New towns sat right next to old ruins with ppl living in both. The craziness of what we were doing finally hit when we pulled up next to a row of camels and some Berbers.

Camels are fascinating. Very tall legs that walk one side at a time. They sit down for you to climb on, like this:

camel

So you don’t really realise how high you are till they stand up. Incredibly docile, gentle creatures. Well suited to the desert.

The ride was awesome. They lurch a lot as they walk but you get used to it. Was pretty much as painful to the ’nads as I feared, but also causes muscle issues in the inner legs and back. I got a gash on my lower back from something, only noticed once back at the hotel. Ride was fairly dark as sun had set. Along a path for a while with fields and trees, then into the desert proper. Camels tied in a line, like this:

camels

They have 2 joints in the leg and kneecaps on both.

The stars were bright- not as clear as I’d hoped due to sand in the air but you could still see a lot more than in the UK. Judging by the plough, we were heading northeast.

The camp was cool. Big, cosy tents in a circle. Had chicken tagine in the big tent. Tried to converse with our fellow campers but most spoke only Italian. This didn’t stop them trying to talk to us as if we understood. Nice bunch tho. Found an adorable KITTEH under a table. Desert kitten! So cute. Wanted to steal it.

After food we were entertained by some traditional Berber drumming and singing. Had a great groove going on until this one guy joined them and started playing these castanet things really loud and really out of time. Totally ruined it. Was hilarious as he clearly had no idea what he was doing. Probably wasn’t even a real Berber. Unless he was playing polyrhythmic jazz, in which case fair play. We were invited to dance at one point so me and Liz did the pulp fiction dance. In the freaking Sahara desert! Tried to get a pit going but to no avail.

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Had a MINOR freak out when I saw a scorpion run across the carpet. A Berber got it with his drum. A minute later Liz saw a bigass spider. Beat a hasty retreat to the tent. Checked every inch for arachnids and snakes and stuff, prayed protection and covered the place with bug spray for good measure. Perhaps I overreacted but it just suddenly hit me that we were in the middle of the desert, surrounded by bugs and a 1 hour camel ride away from civilisation. Liz very helpful even if she didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation. What she doesn’t realise is that during the night I fought off a legion of giant scorpions with my bare hands. It was like this:

scorpion-hill

So, um, I popped a sleeping pill, listened to Metric for a bit and dropped right off. Woke up chilly in the night but many extra blankets were provided. In the morning the carcasses of slain arachnids had mysteriously vanished.

Three Realities

So you have three realities. You have “A Night of Looking After Hubby in the Desert” (Liz’s version) in which an insect of disputed scorpion-ness was spotted and quickly forgotten about, in which we were in no danger, in which the Berbers who were guiding us were perfectly able to keep us safe should anyone get injured or bitten by a desert-dwelling nasty, and where Paul’s reaction was totally out of proportion and pointless.

And then you have “The Battle for Scorpion Hill” (my version) in which a very obviously eight-legged, sting-tailed monstrosity darted towards us, in which there were probably poisonous creatures all around us, in which our only hope for safety were a bunch of so-called Berbers who couldn’t even play the castanets in time, in which my checking, spraying and divinely blessing the tent was the only thing that kept us safe.

…And then you have the actual reality; what really happened. The basic facts, without any interpretation, assumption or emotional significance. Neither of us will ever know precisely what this entails, or how close our own version was to the reality. We can agree on some basic facts- there was a bug of some kind, the Berber drumming was out of time, there was lots of sand. Other than that it was all influenced by our own interpretations. Both mine and Liz’s preconceptions, our past experiences, our personalities and all kinds of other factors warped the objective facts until we arrived at very different conclusions and ended up having markedly different evenings in the desert.

Obviously this is just a stupid example, but suppose the two of us had ended up having a massive argument about the whole experience. Or say we find out at some point that we have fundamentally different views on some major issue. The ability to understand that we don’t just have different opinions, but that we live in totally different versions of the world, coloured by our own experiences and thoughts, would go a long way to helping us see each other’s perspective and find a resolution.

Some people say that everyone living in their own version of reality is a depressing fact that leaves us all isolated in our own heads, incapable of ever really understanding the fundamental “truth” of things or even really knowing anyone else. I see it differently. My head-space is mine to shape how I want- I can take control of my thoughts and whip them into shape. I can twist and adapt my view of the world and make it more than the boring old fundamental reality, not less. I can take ordinary events and things around me and make them into memories, beliefs and sources of joy, laughter, hope and strength.

And best of all I get to do it with Liz, and while we can work on making our realities as in sync as possible we will always have differences and complementary perspectives that make us stronger together than we could ever be apart.

Even if it definitely WAS a bloody scorpion.

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