5 Lessons on the Philosophy of Perception

How we see the world shapes our understanding of what’s real. But how much of what we perceive and experience is the truth or the objective reality? Both psychologists and philosophers have pondered this for ages.

This article explores the philosophy of perception and reality, how we perceive the world, and what defines our reality.

Moreover, it offers actionable steps to use the influence of perception to our advantage. And shift our perception to succeed and reach where we want to be.

What is Perception?

Perception is the “awareness of the elements of the environment through physical sensation.” It involves becoming conscious of stimuli that we receive through our senses. This may include auditory, visual, touch sensation, or hearing experiences.

Examples of perception

Perception is about receiving information about the world through our senses. Furthermore, it’s about interpreting this knowledge.
Perception covers various sensory experiences:

  • Visual Perception: Seeing something as pleasant or displeasing depending on perspective.
  • Auditory Perception: Hearing a song and feeling it based on past experiences.
  • Tactile Perception: Feeling the texture of the fabric and describing it as soft or rough.
  • Gustatory Perception: Tasting a dish and sensing it as savory, sweet, bitter, or sour.
  • Olfactory Perception: Smelling a flower and remembering pleasant memories or experiences.

Our senses, like sight, sound, and touch, tell us about the world. But how we make sense of this information is influenced by our thinking, through paying attention, expecting things, and remembering.

Here are five lessons on the philosophy of perception:

1- Perception is Illusion

We use our senses to perceive the world and the reality around us. However, it’s essential to recognize that human perception is not a passive reception of information about reality. Rather, it involves complex cognitive processes.

For example, consider a human face: a nose, cheeks, forehead, and eyebrows are pocking out as facial features. Now, imagine creating a concave mask with inverted features, such as a hollow nose, cheeks, and chin. How do you think your mind would perceive it?

If you haven’t seen it before, you might like to check out “The Hollow Mask Illusion” video from the Royal Institution YouTube channel.

Our minds know how a face should look like, with projected features like a nose, chin, and forehead. So, when seeing the image of a rotating hollow mask, our minds correct for the inverted features. This explains why, in the Hollow Mask experiment, observers can’t catch the inverted side of the mask. Here, our brains fill in by showing the illusion of a normal human face.

So, it’s clear that our brain and perception aren’t as reliable as we may have assumed in representing reality. But what else does our perception do for us that we might want to know about?

Inaccurate perception of reality

Inaccurate perception of reality can show itself in different ways. Here are some examples:

  • Optical illusions: Seeing images that fool our visual perception. Like Müller-Lyer’s illusion of lines with similar lengths that look unequal.
  • False Memories: Remembering things wrong, sometimes because someone suggested it.
  • Confirmation Bias: Seeing things in a way that agrees with what you already think, even if there’s proof against it.
  • Cognitive Biases: Using mental shortcuts or patterns of thinking makes us make wrong decisions. An example is the halo effect, where one thing about a person changes how we see other things.
  • Delusions: Strongly believing in something that’s not reality. This is often linked to mental health issues like schizophrenia.

In these examples, faulty perception leads to false understanding and cognitive errors.

2- Perception is cognitive

The perception process connects our sensory inputs with our cognitive processes. It compares our sensory experiences with our memories, thoughts, cultural understanding, and more. The objective of this process is to construct a perception of reality that is practical for us. As Bennett and Hacker put it, “What we apprehend in perception is not the object itself, but rather the ideas it causes in us.”1

The perception process is like creating a map of our environment. It helps us navigate the world around us. This map combines sensory input with existing knowledge. And help us understand the world.

For example, we use perception to wave at a friend. Or become aware of the possible dangers, and communicate with others.

Perception, neuroscience, philosophy

Now that we understand perception isn’t entirely as straightforward, let’s see what shapes it.

Science cannot prove that grass isn’t inherently green but only appears so to us. Or that that sugar isn’t genuinely sweet but merely creates the impression of sweetness. (Bennett and Hacker 2001)

However, neuroscience can tell us that the brain itself is not the source of perception. Instead, sensory organs such as the eyes facilitate perception. As Bennett and Hacker point out, “Because the senses are cognitive faculties, they are bound up with the endeavor to attain knowledge.”

In Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, neuroscientists Bennett and Hacker point out that the brain helps us perceive, think, and make decisions. However, it’s people who do these things. The brain merely assists us in these tasks, enabling us to understand, feel emotions, and achieve our goals. 2

Perception is mostly a behavioral response. This means philosophy is even more relevant in exploring conceptual claims in perception.

Perceived reality

The Eyes See Only What The Mind Is Prepared To Comprehend.

Henri Bergson

To recap, Sensation and perception collaborate to help us understand reality. Even though they work together, they are quite different. Sensation is about the physical process and involves sense organs. These would be like ears, nose, skin, eyes, and so forth. But, according to cognitive science, perception is a cognitive function. Which means it interprets the information that we receive through our senses. 3

What is important to understand is that perception isn’t just about passively receiving information from our senses.

The perception process filters sensory information to prevent overwhelming the mind. So, what we see isn’t exactly what our eyes capture. Instead, perception shapes it to suit our existing ideas and mindset.

Aldous Huxley, an English writer and philosopher has written extensively about perception. In The Doors of Perception, Huxley observes how the human mind filters and interprets reality through a narrowing process. He describes it as a funneling process with a reducing valve on one where it reaches our conscious mind. He writes

To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness that will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.

Aldous Huxley

Filtering reality through the perception process is largely unconscious. And gaining a deeper understanding of perception is empowering. Since it helps us recognize our biases and exert control over them.

Memories change Perception

We often assume that our perception reflects the present moment. However, our perception is equally influenced by both the past and the future expectations.

Memories serve as a lens through which we interpret and make sense of sensory information. Memory includes past experiences, cultural norms, learned habits, and individual preferences.

For instance, studies in the neurobiology of olfaction suggest that humans have a unique ability when it comes to the sense of smell. Since odors can vividly evoke emotional experiences stored in memory. An example of this connection is depicted in the opening of Marcel Proust’s novel, Swann’s Way. 4 Here, the flavor of a Madeleine cookie dipped in a cup of lime flower blossom tea brings back vivid childhood imagery. Here is how Proust writes about it:

The memory suddenly appears before my mind. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time) my aunt Leonie used to give to me, dipping it first in her cup of real or lime-flower tea.

Marcel Proust

Influence of previous experience on perception

Consequently, two individuals may understand the same event differently based on their previous experiences. This disparity leads to differences in understanding and interpretation. For example, consider different political parties and how each party’s supporters believe they are voting for the best team.

Perception is a subjective experience of the world because it combines information from our senses with personal experiences.

So, not only memories and past experiences but also future anticipation can change our perception.

Perception is engagement

Some philosophers argue that perception resembles a dialogue with our senses. This suggests that perception is less about passively receiving information. Instead, it’s more about actively engaging and negotiating with the world around us.

Henri Bergson views perception as a relationship between stimuli and our inner workings. He highlights the dynamic and creative aspect of perception. Bergson sees perception not only as a memory of the past. He also views it as a continuous process of moving toward future interpretation. In Matter and Memory, Chapter3, Bergson writes:

Practically we perceive only the past, the pure present being the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future.

Henri Bergson

3- Perception is truth

Perception shapes our understanding of truth by filtering reality through our thoughts and feelings. However, truth exists independently of how we perceive it. And represents an objective reality beyond personal interpretation. Perception varies among individuals. Meaning, different people may interpret truth differently based on their own experiences and biases. As a result, our perception may not always align with the actual truth, and we might not even realize it.

To recap, perception and truth are different. And although perceptions shape our subjective reality, it doesn’t define the external world. For example, imagine two people attending the same concert. One person perceives the music as exhilarating, while the other finds it boring. Their perceptions shape their subjective realities of the concert experience. However, these perceptions do not alter the external reality of the music being played or the atmosphere of the venue.

Perception as reality

Reality can be understood as either subjective or objective. Subjective reality is intimately linked to personal experience. For example, swimming in a lake is pleasing for one person, while for another, it is too cold to enjoy the swim.

Subjective reality is personal. However, objective reality is about creating an impartial version of the world. So, objective reality refers to something that exists independently of an individual’s perception. For example, science is founded based on objective facts or empirical data. Thus, scientific methods employ techniques to eliminate subjective bias and attain objective reality.

On a personal level, however, reality is reflected through our perception and is uniquely shaped by our perception of events, people, and circumstances. This underscores the inherent subjectivity of human experience. So, this means what we perceive as real may differ greatly from another person’s perspective.

4- Perception is reality

We all have unique subjective perspectives, that filter our reality. However, we often instinctively accept our subjective perception as the true reality, despite its divergence from objective truth.

For example, consider someone who is skilled, diligent, and has a strong work ethic going for a job interview. However, due to a challenging situation, they arrive with disheveled clothes and unkempt hair. In this scenario, the perception formed by the hiring manager becomes their reality, overshadowing their actual qualities.

So, in practical life, we often equate our perception with reality. This means that even though our perception may not align with objective reality, people tend to assume that their perception represents the truth.

In our daily interactions, our subjective perception is all that we use to interact with the world around us. Subjective perception is fast, innate, and often subconscious.

So, we often use subjective perception to understand others and communicate. And we use it to guide our actions and decisions. Consequently, our subjective perceptions become reality. As a result, the alignment of perception with objective reality often takes a back seat. That’s why it is vital to understand the roots of our perceptions.

Because perception forms our reality. This means a gloomy perspective creates a cynical reality around us. And similarly, a positive perspective fosters resilience and directs life toward a positive path.

To understand our perceptions, we need to reflect on ourselves. This involves introspection and talking to others with diverse perspectives.

Reality and people’s perception

People’s perception shapes how they interpret the world and others around them. And it is influenced by their experiences, culture, beliefs, and emotions. These perceptions may include stereotypes and biases beneath people’s direct awareness.

The perception of others plays a crucial role in education and work. For example, job candidates are often evaluated not only on their qualifications but also on their impressions. These could include facial expressions and clothes. hairstyle, body language, and more.

At work perceptions shape interactions between colleagues, supervisors, and clients. For impression about a new supervisor could change employee productivity and job satisfaction.

How others perceive individuals impacts their relationships, career advancement, and professional success.

So, it’s important to pay attention to how others perceive us and take action to control that perception. This could be the key to success at work and in relationships. As it helps build positive relationships and opportunities for growth.

5- Perception is blind

We often assume that what we perceive through our senses represents the complete picture of reality. However, attention directs our focus toward certain stimuli while disregarding others. This means our perception process is highly selective.

Research on perception and attention shows that any process with limited capacity inherently involves selectivity. As the mind cannot handle all stimuli simultaneously, the perception is coupled with attention to select what should come to our awareness. 5

This connection shows that altering our attention and focus changes perceptions.

Magic and changing perception

Stage magicians have a keen understanding of how perception and reality work. Since their techniques involve tricking our senses. Studying performance magic is valuable in psychology research as it helps us to learn about awareness. And give us a deeper understanding of attention and perception.

For instance, in performance magic, a timing technique can shift the audience’s attention away from a secret action or move. A closer examination of magic acts shows that magicians use various techniques to captivate their audience during sleight of hand or secret movement. For example, they may use rhythmic speech or music with a consistent rhythm. Or, they might use unrelated gestures with their hands to distract the audience. 6

Illusions due to attention are not limited to performance magic. An illusion is a false perception of reality. These false impressions can come from the senses. Or it could be cognitive processes, distorting one’s understanding of the environment.

Researchers  Christopher Chabris, and Daniel Simons test the relationship between attention and perception.

In The Invisible Gorilla, the authors explore selective attention and perceptual blindness. They examine six common illusions and their impact on our lives: illusions of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential.

The illusion of attention suggests that we might overlook unexpected events right before our eyes. The illusion of memory could cause us to remember events inaccurately. Each illusion in turn sheds light on how human cognition mediates reality.

Attention and different perceptions of reality

Our perception of reality varies depending on where we direct our attention. The way we allocate our attention dictates which elements of our surroundings we notice, concentrate on, and ultimately integrate into our comprehension of the world.

Individuals prioritize stimuli differently based on their interests, goals, and experiences. Consequently, this leads to different perceptions of reality.

Attention plays a crucial role not only in shaping what we perceive but also in influencing how we interpret the world. This shows the subjective nature of reality, as our attentional focus influences our perceptions.

Our goals, interests, expectations, and emotions impact our attentional focus, shaping the way we perceive the world. As a result, we have the power to reshape our reality and discover new opportunities by directing our attention deliberately.

Changing your perception by changing your attention and intention

Changing perception starts by shifting intention and focus. We can change how we see and engage with the world by focusing on the positives and setting clear goals. Intentional focus lets us shape our reality, emphasizing what matters most. Turning attention toward positives or viewing challenges as opportunities boosts overall happiness.

Given this, how can we effectively shape perception to our advantage?

Practical steps in changing perception

To control perception, focus on attention. Develop mindfulness and awareness of attention habits.

These habits are often shaped by personality and experiences. For instance, a negative perspective makes one feel hopeless and not take action when it is possible. However, by focusing on the positive outcome, we can alter these patterns. Here are practical steps to leverage attention and influence perception:

Strategies for changing your perception

  1. Identify Intent: Clarify what truly matters to you and redirect your focus accordingly.
  2. Identify Goals and Values: Reflect on your values and goals to narrow your focus.
  3. Practice Wu Wei: Explore what comes naturally to you. Embrace activities that align with your natural tendencies to enhance efficiency.
  4. Set clear intentions: Define which aspects of reality you want to focus on and how you want to perceive them.
  5. Notice mental chatter and distraction: Be mindful of hidden mental chatter. Set aside a small format journal that you can carry around with you. Set a notification every few hours and write down what was on your mind. After a few weeks, review your notes to identify common themes.
  6. Practice Mindfulness: Incorporate mindfulness exercises into your routine to stay present and focused.
  7. Be mindful of your environment: Surround yourself with an environment that supports your goals.
  8. Challenge Negative Self-Talk: Replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations.
  9. Limit distractions: Limit negative news, and social media that may affect you negatively.
  10. Visualize Change: Make a vision board or do visualization exercises. Picture yourself living life from a new perspective or achieving your goals.
  11. Stay Open-Minded: Seek new experiences and interact with different cultures, ideas, and beliefs. Stay curious and ready to learn from others, even when their views differ from yours.


  1. M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker, “Perception and memory in neuroscience: a conceptual analysis,” Progress in Neurobiology, vol. 65, no. 6, pp. 499–543, Dec. 2001, doi: 10.1016/S0301-0082(01)00020-X. ↩︎
  2. M. R. Bennett and P. M. S. Hacker, Philosophical foundations of neuroscience, Second edition. Hoboken, NJ $nWiley Blackwell, 2022. P.3 ↩︎
  3. V. Nejati, “Chapter one – Foundation of Cognitive Rehabilitation,” in Principles of Cognitive Rehabilitation, V. Nejati, Ed., Academic Press, 2023, pp. 1–58. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-443-18750-6.00032-8. P.6 ↩︎
  4. A.-M. Mouly and R. Sullivan, “Memory and Plasticity in the Olfactory System: From Infancy to Adulthood,” in The Neurobiology of Olfaction, A. Menini, Ed., in Frontiers in Neuroscience. , Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, 2010. Accessed: Mar. 05, 2024. [Online]. Available: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK55967/ ↩︎
  5. R. A. Rensink, “Perception and attention,” in The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology, in Oxford Library of Psychology. , New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 97–116. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195376746.013.0007. ↩︎
  6. A. S. Barnhart, M. J. Ehlert, S. D. Goldinger, and A. D. Mackey, “Cross-modal attentional entrainment: Insights from magicians,” Atten Percept Psychophys, vol. 80, no. 5, pp. 1240–1249, Jul. 2018, doi: 10.3758/s13414-018-1497-8. ↩︎