Our neurology deals only with perceptions, not with our inside sense of reality, writes Oliver Burkeman
A bit odd if you're a bloke, being told by your doctor to lose weight. But, in many ways, the discussion itself - the advice, certainly, but more importantly the process of arriving at it - is an order to order. Suddenly, one is conscious of one's body in ways one might never have thought: we're suddenly "showing" - that word used by the psychologist Deborah Page, who in 1993 coined the term "symbolic perception" to describe the tendency people have to bring our reflections of what they look like, once they're present in the physical world, into our awareness of the body as a whole.
When I talked to her, she said a physiological basis for such perception might be important in understanding some of life's more abstruse mysteries. "I think it's very important to understand the psychological driving forces," she said. "We have a lot of things that are integrated subconsciously ... I think in many cases this is a form of adaptation, a kind of paradoxical adaptation." Page finds these mechanisms to be essential to understanding complex phenomena in psychology, while in some cases they can inform the discussion of the kinds of complex phenomena she loves to talk about.
So, for example, although no one's quite sure why, perceptions do seem to reflect how we feel. It's hard to think of a psychologist who hasn't picked up on this a few times, though it's clear they weren't always convinced: just last week, a team led by Martin Parson - who've been studying these tendencies for a decade - published a paper at the Association for Psychological Science meeting pointing out that a prominent study showing that people tend to overrate the difference between the "correct" and "correctly" reported meanings of words concluded that this proves people were viewing the world the wrong way. Or take one of the puzzles at the root of Freud's magnum opus. The question of whether the dominant sexual morality - of fetishes, cults, politics, atheism, etc - is merely a sentiment, a result of unconscious inner pressures, rather than a rational act of will was a core principle in the study by the brain-biologist Béatrice Jollot of the University of Lausanne.
Until then, "members of different kinds of moral philosophies" were assumed to be evil, argued Jollot in a pioneering study in the early 1980s. But with a follow-up a decade later, she showed us that "our unconscious beliefs about our own moral perspectives and the orientations of the world around us will often reveal clear parallels."
What the authors of "symbolic perception" - and, in my case, the medical doctor who has helped me to reach that conclusion - seem to be saying is that the more we try to control our subjective experiences, the more they remind us we're on our own. Something at once comforting and chilling to consider.