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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)


Becoming the Ultimate Perceptive Social Animal

Paul Kiritsis - Thursday, September 27, 2012

I’m inclined to believe that the world would become a much better place to live in if everybody learned the art of perception–seeing, hearing, and understanding another human being. If people really focused upon seeing another human being through certain visual cues that preclude spoken language and not through their own personal kaleidoscope of perceptions, then incidences of unnecessary angst, misapprehension, confusion, and disillusionment would no doubt be much less prevalent than what they are now. For most of us, the route of this problem can be traced back to the anatomy of our very nature. We are, on the whole, egocentric beings with a genuine, intuitively felt need for validation; in heeding to this ubiquitous unconscious desire, we skew the evolution of phenomena away from a collective, objectified truth towards subjectified, egocentric versions of the world by processing information within the restrictive matrix of our own personal mythologies and legacies. In other words, we fuel unconscious fantasies by reading into circumstances things that aren’t really there and then become upset or disheartened when a successive chain of events substantiates what were obviously fantastical misperceptions in the first place. Encountering the external world through our own coloured lenses makes it quite impossible to discern genuine insights about another’s disposition and natural inclinations from restrictive and unsubstantiated myths about them that have been fashioned from the substrate of prematurely-formed opinion. In extreme cases, people get caught up in preconceived notions about the needs and wants of another to the point that it generates bad feelings between the one perceiving and the one being perceived. When left unresolved, these little negative outlooks evolve into altercations. But all this can be dutifully avoided if we bear witness to a few very simple and reasonable guidelines on social intercourse.

The first of these is observation. For some strange reason people find it really difficult to observe a subject by letting all other mentation and brain noise dissipate into the background and just grasping the subject for what it is. To do this, one must become completely passive and receptive like the alchemical materia prima, an opaque mirror that reflects the most intricate psychic and physiological detail originating from the subject in question. You must accurately reflect what the subject essentially is by forgetting about yourself as a sentient being composed of thought-desires and goals and by adopting the childlike curiosity of early infancy. An infant’s mentation is uninhibited, selfless, and outwardly-turned when receiving impressions. He or she is not bound up in ridiculous societal complexes that typify early adulthood and which are more often than not exalted in the self-absorbed behaviours and trend-following motivations of teenagers enamoured of matter. In the natural world, youth is generally more attentive to the environment because survival is entirely dependent on it. For an infant, one misperception or mistake in judgement can signal an untimely death. This is the attitude we must adapt towards one another in order to build solid, truthful relationships based on love, trust, and compassion.  Your chances of reading visual and auditory cues correctly are slim to zero if you are too preoccupied with how you look and how you come across or if your mind is elsewhere. In one-on-one conversations, an unbalanced mood that promotes apprehension and takes the observer away from the subject needing to be observed is a form of social suicide. As a rule of thumb, always remember that anything that diverts attention back to your own feelings, sensations, and preoccupations is an enemy of objective reflection.

Once we have developed acuity in observation we can begin to perceive what the phenomenal world and subjectified reality might look like through another person’s eyes. The best way to go about this interpersonal exercise is to step into his personality through mimicry. Imagine yourself as that person. Imagine what the world might look like through that person’s eyes. Examine the habitual sum of biological and psychological impulses that make that person who and what they are. Start by looking at general physiognomy. Does the person smile much? Eyes are the windows of the soul and reflect the present condition of the inner life; are they vibrant and full of life or do they look dull and lacklustre? Does the person look comfortable in their skin? Dissatisfaction with one’s body weight, type, and general appearance happens to be a foremost cause of personal insecurity and lack of self-esteem along with one of the biggest causes of depression in the developed West. Does the person gesture much? If so, is there any discernible pattern to them? What is the general tone of the person’s voice like? Does it fluctuate according to the prevailing sentiments of the conversation or does it remain constant regardless of the whole continuum of emotions experienced? How does the person walk? Is the individual light and springy on his feet as if he was skipping and dancing to upbeat and commemorative music or does he drag his feet along the ground in a manner which suggests that he’s burdened by the weight of the whole world upon his shoulders? What is the nature of the person’s thought? Is it mostly positive and benevolent or is it mostly negative and derogatory? Do his verbalizations and preoccupations harmonize with his body language?

Try switching positions with the subject and seeing the world through his eyes, if only for a single moment. The whole point is to become aware of the immediate environment through his perceptions. If I, for instance, was communing with somebody who I knew suffered from acute paranoia and alcoholism I would visualize myself being gripped by feelings of persecution, guilt, and apprehension every time an individual holding a beer stared at me from the opposite end of a shopping arcade. By the same token if I was conversing with an elderly gentleman with a walking stick I might imagine what it would be like to have severely restricted movement along my back and an unrelenting shudder in my arms. Alternatively if I was conversing with the mother of a newborn baby I might imagine a number of prosaic tasks that the day has in stall for me or the colossal dedication, selflessness, and responsibility that goes into raising another human being in a society equally adept at dishing out commendation and judgement. Attention to detail is important given that facial expressions, quality of voice, and the constellation of gesticulations associated with personality reveal the vital essence, nature, and meaning of the life to which they relate. It might also be useful to descry peculiar idiosyncrasies or strange little habits. Noticing that a person chews his fingertips or bites his lips every so often reveals some hidden truth about temperament and intuitive trends than does a verbalized utterance on behalf of the person claiming that anxiety and pensiveness are non-existent in his life.

Thus far, we have determined that the best possible way of understanding another human being is through childlike curiosity in addition to a concentrated observation of general physiognomy and the compatibility of mannerisms, quality of voice, and facial expressions with verbalized declarations. One who can operate on this level won’t hesitate to form speculative hypotheses about the motivations and innermost desires of another individual. Conjecture is no crime against humanity; in actual fact, if it wasn’t for the human propensity for speculative thought civilization would never have bared witness to any advancement in scientific methodology, automata, and technology in general. Just like the noblest intelligentsias and artists who have stimulated growth in cultural, technical, and scientific aspects of civilized life, anyone with an inherent capacity for psychospiritual growth is likely to make carefully measured guesses about another’s disposition and innate tendencies. Individuals courageous enough to make guesses based on prior experience are in effect expressing a desire to understand. In doing so they reveal a greater predisposition for empathy and compassion than ones whom consciously shy away from generalizations of character for fear of losing communal integrity or being ridiculed. A great empathizer is like a great scientist in that he is not afraid to hypothesize. In the end, he may be proved wrong but an erroneous conjecture is not entirely useless; it does its part in putting the train of an investigation leading to the station of objective truth back on the right track. Another correspondence is that a great empathizer will form a speculative opinion based on what is known about the subject in question in the exact same way that a great scientist will theorize an archetypal model through which a specific gamut of phenomena might be collated and interpreted. When a good empathizer comes across evidence that contradicts his impression, he won’t hesitate to modify his beliefs to reflect the new reality just as a good scientist will avoid becoming a casualty of emotional attachments to his own experiential convictions by adapting his hypothesis and archetypal model to accommodate fresh and unprecedented facts. On the opposite end of the scale, the bad empathizer and the bad scientist are united by their subjective rigidity and their inability to acclimatize to hitherto unknown facts. So it appears that a partiality for flexibility is what separates the great from the poor.   

Another by-product of the train of deductive reasoning we have chosen to embark upon relates to ongoing scrutiny. Becoming adaptable to shifting impressions isn’t the only factor that determines whether one is a great empathizer of their fellow brethren or not. A second and even more circumstantial one calls for an ongoing and scrupulous assessment of impressions that may or may not remain constant. Hypothetically, it is not appropriate and fair that I tenaciously hold onto negative impressions about someone as a crafty opportunist when an internal consistency descried through physiognomic and pragmatic cues seems to suggest a newfound bent for generosity. Don’t be afraid to change the trajectory of a full-fledged opinion that has developed over time to match a newborn configuration of internal consistencies. People can and do change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. Therefore, you must never be without your hermeneutic tools; you must distinguish possible transformation in the psychology of individuals like a mercurial thermometer detects changes in outside air temperature by measuring all possible sensory impressions and leitmotifs that come from them against a correlated assortment of personal characteristics that includes gesticulations, reactions, intonation of voice, facial expressions, prevailing moods, and emotional fixations. When evidence garnered by the just mentioned qualities corroborates a particular perception, you can rest assured that your perception is an accurate measure of objective truth as it subsists at the present time.

One of the best possible ways of determining whether or not you’re good at interpreting foreign impressions with your hermeneutic tools is to invert the process. Take somebody you know relatively well–a close friend, relative, or lover–and transpose his or her prevailing character traits and behavioural patterns into facial expressions, gestures, voice quality and intonation, and conventional disposition. Is there a detectable pattern or qualitative connection between the person’s inner tendencies and his or her general physiognomy and actions? Do the latter correspond with the former? To illustrate this point, my brother is a classic example of the proverbial Scorpio man; he is secretive, meditative, and inwardly-focused being with a tendency to suffer from intermittent bouts of nervousness and a notorious incapacity to divide his conscious awareness (i.e. multitask). For me these intangible aspects of his personality take on a life of their own when he paces back and forth in the lounge room or when he changes the arrangement of utensils on his desk only to return them to their former position; in repeated failures to respond to questions posed when we’re driving someplace together; and in facial features that usually conspire to form solemn and pensive expressions. The fact that the basic anatomy of our psyche stems from the same cosmic source and participates in a continuum of similar cultural experiences goes to show that types and classes of outward impressions do signify the same inner conditions. They are universal, and so what might apply to one individual also applies to another of the same cultural or socio-political rubric. One general rule of thumb to remember when interpreting impressions is to pay close attention to physiognomic and pragmatic cues and much less attention to verbal affirmations and reaffirmations. People often lie about their though-desires and habits.  

On the whole the assembly between the individual’s vocalizations and his or her immanent gestures and actions will indicate the level of contentedness and harmony within that particular individual. What we find in most cases is that people’s gestures, their words and actions, and their voices will conform to a single hypothesis and march to the rhythm of the same tune. But there are obvious exceptions to this rule.  When there is an irreconcilable conflict between these two realities, we can infer that an obvious bifurcation has occurred between one’s unconscious will and a conscious desire for acceptance through conformist undertakings. Saying something and then going and doing something completely different or espousing very strong reactions or feelings towards a certain acquaintance for no apparent reason are symptoms of this inner-outer conflict and just being at odds with one’s self. The best way of discriminating what defining characteristics and habits one remains unconscious of is to ask the respective individual. The answer you receive will expose many unacknowledged impressions and the sum of their worth is usually a pretty good indication of that individual’s level of self- knowledge.

Good luck folks!




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