The Windows of Perception

Long days at home, in the last two years. We’ve all filled them somehow – baking or cleaning, quarreling or playing, sitting in front of the television or solving jigsaw puzzles. 

My bent is to research, grateful every day for the internet’s treasures of news and how-to’s, science and travel, museums and music, literature and laughter. How can people get entangled by ephemera when there’s so much substance right at hand? Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers yearned for such a rich resource.

Even the most ardent researcher, however, needs a break!

One of my respites has been a plain little online game called Set. It calls for nimble pattern-switching. With patience I got fairly good at it. And then I began to learn something from it.

Here’s The Deal:
  • You’re presented with 12 cards from deck of 81. Each card has 1, 2, or 3 icons in one of three shapes (squiggle, oval, diamond), three colours (red, green, blue), and three patterns (solid, striped, empty).
  • Your job is to select, from the 12 you see, a set of three that, on each dimension, are either all alike or all unlike. 
  • The cards you select – if they’re a valid set – disappear and are replaced with another three from the deck, until the deck is finished.
  • You get points for each set identified, and can race yourself against a timer.
The icons are cartoonish – the sophistication is all in the challenge.

There’s a surprising variety of combinations – 

  • Same shape, colour, and pattern, different numbers
  • Same number, shape and colour, different patterns
  • Same number, shape and pattern, different colours
  • Different number, shape, colour, and pattern.

There’s an easy set on this board: the striped cards are all the same colour and all different in number and shape:

  • 1 diamond, 2 oval, 3 squiggle.


But wait! there are more sets on that board:

  • 1 red solid oval, 2 green empty diamond, 3 blue striped squiggle.
  • 1 blue empty oval, 2 red striped oval, 3 green solid oval.
  • 3 green solid oval, 3 blue striped squiggle, 3 red empty diamond.

You can select any set and the game goes on.

How many can you find on the second board? (at least 3)

Don’t be discouraged that they’re hard to puzzle out at first – the eye and mind get the hang of it fairly quickly.

So what deep thing worth writing about did I glean from this game?

Nothing at first – though I did notice that I resorted to it most often when overwhelmed by conflicting demands. It seemed my mind wanted to do some content-free sorting before sifting through real-world noise to find what most needed attention.

As I gained skill, I developed strategies to bring my score up and my time down.

With more skill, I got impatient with my failures – when I could not find a set on the board and yet the app showed me one. O no! that’s a long search time with no points for me.

Most frustrating was that very often I’d overlooked completely obvious sets. Three empty single diamonds. Right in front of me. Why, how hadn’t I seen them? 

Gentle introspection revealed that I looked first for a particular combination that I find easy to spot … then for a set of stripes, a set of singles … After trying three or four search patterns my mind would balk. “Nothing to find here,” it said.

Even when there was!

It turns out that the mind can be very slow to switch from one search pattern to another.

There’s a folk tale about this – more than one, actually, but the story that came to mind goes like this:

A footsore traveler came upon an old farmer leaning on a fence, and stopped to ask,

What are the people like in the next town?

What were they like, where you came from?

A mean-minded lot, quarrelsome and greedy.

You’ll find them about the same up ahead.

At base we’re hunters and gatherers – focused on our quarry, skilled at brushing past distractions. Turns out there’s a name for that – selective attention – and a short amusing video that demonstrates it. While I was on the lookout for stripes in the set game, solids were distractions: I didn’t see them. That’s a trait with high survival value … in the wild.

The real world of experience is very like this little game: a jumble of data to navigate – sights, sounds, colours, textures, shapes that our minds wrestle into coherence.

It’s worth remembering that what we notice isn’t necessarily all there is to see.

And that we’re not living in the wild.

Our main experiences are not of plants, sky, water, animals, but of people.

What do you see, when you meet someone – age, skin tone, gender, income? Or can you see the poet, the musician, the weaver … the bereft mother, the landless gardener, the lonely heart … the builder, the visionary, the teacher, the organizer?

Even a rich person may be a brilliant teacher; even an unhoused person may take you on a lively tour of fine-art collections. Features of value come in all ages, skin tones, genders, incomes.

In civilization, those are the distractions to brush past. 

We can train our minds to this with a judo strategy: enlist your opponent’s weight to throw them. It’s highly effective. In this case the “opponent” is your mind’s own skill at seeing what you expect to find. 

As an experiment, go on the lookout for something you value in people. Maybe for you that’s – 

  • a quality – kindness, leadership, a good singing voice, …
  • a craft – weaving, carpentry, furniture repair, …
  • experience – camping, teaching, mending, …
  • an interest – chess, songbirds, dance, …

Oddly often, what you’re looking for is what you’ll find. 

Then even a gritty city becomes a landscape peopled with delights.

Some people call that serendipity. 

I call it opening the windows of perception to let the sun shine in.

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