How do you answer the proverbial question: If a
tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? I’ll start by posing an answer to the
question and then move on to addressing the implications of this answer.
Let’s start with the simplest description of what happens when this weary
old tree falls. As it topples the trunk
bends then snaps, branches break, it crashes against other trees, leaves rustle
slowly at first then faster as the tree slams against whatever else is in its
path and eventually the ground. This
motion and series of collisions cause vibrations that set the air in corresponding
motion. So far is there any sound?
Let’s continue following the chain of events assuming a man named Plato
is one hundred yards away out of sight of the tree. Some puffs of air transmitting these complex wave
patterns are captured and modified by his outer ear then funneled to his
eardrum. Plato’s eardrum vibrates and again
alters and transmits the vibrations so they cause the smallest bones in his
body, which are located in his ear, to bang against a fluid-filled chamber like
some Rube Goldberg machine. The fluid
vibrates and causes the sensory cells deep inside Plato’s ear to move. Is there a sound yet? It’s worth noting that if Plato were dead
these same things would be happening.
Let’s assume Plato is alive and has a fully functioning brain. The sensory cells dance and transmit a
complex neural code deeper within his brain.
The signal spreads to other parts of his brain and this code is broken
down, analyzed, reconstructed and compared to other events stored in Plato’s
memory. Somewhere in this sequence Plato
becomes aware of the vibrations that originated “out there.” Somewhere later in
this sequence he becomes aware that the code most resembles a pattern that may
correspond to the sound of a falling tree.
This is the first time I needed to use the word “sound.”
vibrations caused by a falling tree only become sound when they are perceived
and assigned meaning by a cognizant organism. The falling tree makes no
sound. Sound is your interpretation of
the cascade of events that began as the tree fell.
Furthermore, the experience of sound can be very idiosyncratic. It can
depend on relatively simple things
like the shape of your ear or the
elasticity of your eardrum. It can also depend on relatively
things like the types of sounds you’ve
experienced in life and your ability to identify
To prove this to yourself compare
of music to that of an infant.
Or compare your
experience of sound to that of a bat or a piano
with perfect pitch. If Plato had never before
heard a falling tree it might simply sound like
indecipherable noise akin to
trying to understand
the words of a foreign language.
Why is this important? This
helps to clearly differentiate between events
that give rise to experience and our experience
of them. The two are different. Our experience
is, in a very real physiological and psychological
way, an interpretation of what we refer to as
reality. “Falling tree” is, in a sense, the story we
create to explain the
experience derived from the data
filtered through our senses and interpreted in
(this discussion could
easily be extended to all of our senses and the experiences they afford but
that would make for a very long, and way too boring essay.)
Most of our experiences are not this simple. They are much more ambiguous,
complicated, amenable to interpretation as well as laden with significance and
emotion. All of these things further impact
our perceptions. Imagine the
implications for how we perceive and interpret more complicated events: Are her eyes blue or green? Why is he looking at me that way? Why did that driver cut me off on the highway? Is she being rude? What were they talking
about as I walked by? Does she love me? Is the waiter flirting? Is that a smile or a
smirk? Do they really want peace with
us? Are they trying to provoke a war?
At this point it should be clear that your perceptions, both simple and
complex, are at best an impressionistic and, likely, idiosyncratic
interpretation of what’s out there. This
offers both challenge and opportunity. The
challenge exists because the subjectivity of experience constrains it and limits
our ability to appreciate alternate interpretations available to us or adopted
by others. Differences between people may
lead to unhappiness, conflict or worse. They
certainly contribute to much of the discord we encounter as we try to live in
harmony with others (and ourselves).
The opportunity, though, can be far greater and empowering. Recognizing the distinction between external
reality and our perception of it offers a delineated moment to step back, hold and
examine perception as if it were an object in our hands. There is a moment to pause and create a gap after
taking in the external information.
Within this gap is an opportunity, before we respond, to question,
evaluate and adjust our interpretation of the information. More importantly, this affords us the
opportunity to adapt how we respond. We can choose to respond intentionally
rather than reflexively.
Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we
are.” This is, perhaps, more true than
The practical side of
this is that we can truly choose how we interpret and respond to what’s around
us. We are built that way because our
reality is, by biological design, subjective.
This does not imply that “anything goes.” Rather, it means that you possess the autonomy
to consider alternate, plausible interpretations not only of the world around
you but also of how others are responding to the world around them. It is my hope that this realization will
grant you the freedom to actively choose perspectives that create more
contentedness and harmony in your life.
Why choose anything else?
(Other Thoughts and Essays)