Have you heard about the story of a group of blind men visiting an elephant to find out what it was like?? ‘The blind men and an elephant’ is one of my favourites, and I often share it with my students to introduce them to the concept of perception. On one occasion, while sharing it in a lecture, I found myself in a difficult situation. That story I would like to keep for later blogging!!!
The Parable, “the blind men and an elephant”, is known to have originated from the Buddhist era in Indian folk stories. Different versions and interpretations of the same story are available, but I stick with my story; that is how four visually challenged men went to see (hypothetically) an elephant.
The story goes like this:
There lived four friends who were visually challenged, in a village and heard a lot about an animal called an elephant. They heard many people talking about the biggest animal on earth, and that made them very curious. They wanted to understand how and what an elephant looked like. They went to a nearby village where a landlord had owned and tamed an elephant. None of them had any idea about the elephant, only they had heard it was very big.
A villager directed them to the elephant, which was tied to a nearby tree. The first blind man went near to the leg of the elephant and touched and felt it. He exclaimed that ‘Oh!! The Elephant is like a pillar!!’ The second one went to the rear side and touched the tail, and shouted, “Nooo…The elephant is not like a pillar; it’s like a rope!!” The third one went near the tusk and felt its sharp edge and started laughing at the first two. He said, “How can you both be so ignorant? An elephant is like a sharp spear!!” The last one climbed the ladder which was kept near the elephant and touched the big ear of the animal and shouted from there, “all of you are fools!!! An elephant is neither a pillar nor a rope or spear, but it’s like a huge fan!!!!” They returned to their village arguing with each other, sticking to their feelings to be true and final!!!
What do you think the moral of the story is?
Who is right here??
And who is wrong??
What do you think??
According to me, nobody is wrong here!! But not entirely right too!! They all are partially correct but wrong in perceiving what an elephant is!! Do you agree??
These are the last four lines of the poem: “the blind men and the elephant” by a famous American Poet ‘John Godfrey Saxe’ which he wrote in 1872.
At times many of us behave like those blind men in the above story. We fail to perceive the whole picture and satisfy ourselves with whatever partial truths, available. We, human beings, tend to take out partial experience as the entire truth and are reluctant to accept others perspectives.
What is perception??
The process in which we take our sensory inputs and organise and interpret them in a meaningful way can be called perception. Social perception is when we try to understand other people like what they do and why they do it? It sounds simple, but that is not the reality. The artificial intelligent systems illustrate how complicated perception is!!
The act of perception is the construction of mental representations of objects, people and thoughts. Many factors strongly influence perception. The things that affect our power of perception may include:
- Preconceived notions: That is having opinions beforehand without adequate evidence. As an example, we can say that having preconceived notions about a specific community can make us like or dislike people from it.
- Attribution errors: it is a way of judging others harshly by ignoring the situational factors. The first thing that comes to mind while someone is cutting us while driving is a rash driver. We might perceive his situation wrongly or partially.
- Cognitive biases: this topic needs another article to explain. Many such thinking biases distort reality and affect how we view the world. An example of one of the cognitive biases (namely the confirmation bias) is the news regarding the pros and cons of the Covid vaccination process.
- Different learning experience: people experience different learning patterns in different cultures. The Zulus Community of South Africa prefers circular structures or buildings and avoids straight lines and right angles.
- Motivation: humans tend to see what they want to see. For example, someone choosing a specific shade of greyish paint on their walls. Others may not be able to understand or perceive it in the correct sense.
- Attitude: attitude towards life and others around us can be positive or negative. For example, a positive attitude towards a particular political view can affect the perception of its workers.
- Expectations: our prior beliefs based on past experiences make us perceive the present scenario in a similar context. One may perceive that they may not be lucky to maintain good relationships as they had failed in the past can be an example of this.
- Selective perceptions: Human beings like the blind men in the story perceive things based on their particular frame of reference. An example of this is why we select one brand while rejecting others.
The moral of the story!!
In the above story, ‘the elephant’ can represent many other abstract things and can be used as a metaphor for the reality of life… Many things which we cannot see can be related to the animal elephant. We may use the ‘The elephant’ as a metaphor for environmental issues, natural resources, planets, the concept of God, the mystery of life and death and so on. We cannot draw conclusions based on our limited and subjective experiences. For bringing out the absolute truths of life, we need to consider other’s experiences and perceptions too.
Opting for a complete context, we need to be more accepting and accommodating. The journey of life teaches us to understand others’ points of view instead of jumping into assumptions impulsively. Life would become simpler and practical if we accept the fact that human beings have the inability to understand and verify the infallible facts by themselves.
We humans need to rise above ignorance and understand the multiple facets of reality. The story ‘blind men and elephant’ gives us the lessons of ‘relativism’ and ‘tolerance’. What is your opinion about this? Please share with us!!