I see…or do I?

Painting in a painting Neil Simone
Painting in a painting
Neil Simone

Is it possible that we could look right at something but not see it because we have no previous experience of anything like it? Is it possible that we need the neural pathway to carry the information to some part of our brain for interpretation, and if we lack that pathway, we cannot “see” it at all?

We all have a worldview and that determines many, if not most , of the ways we understand the world. The word “view” is built right in to “worldview.” When we understand something we say, “Oh, I see.”

There is a story floating around* that indigenous peoples could not see the big ships of the European explorers, because they had nothing with which to compare them.

Supposedly, the shaman could see the ships because he was used to seeing weird things. We call such people “seers” sometimes. The natives did see the explorers when they came ashore in smaller boats, and often met them with arrows, because ‘dudes in canoe’ was something they had experienced.

I read a story about the Pirahas, an indigenous group near the Amazon who supposedly were all atheists, had no origin story and did not believe in an afterlife. If true, that would be interesting because all other indigenous peoples believe in a spirit world and some sort of afterlife. But the Piraha were just 200 members of a tribe that once numbered in the tens of thousands. Were they de-culturated?

In one anecdote about the Piraha, the author mentions that they refused to go into the forest because a spirit was telling them if they did so, they would die. “What spirit?” he asked. “That spirit standing right there,” they answered in apparent amazement at his denseness. Could they see something that he could not because he had no neural pathway for “spirit issuing safety warnings?”

I don’t have the answer to this question, but something happened to me that leads me to suspect that indeed, we have trouble seeing a thing without some previous experience of it. When I lived in the boonies, I noticed a ‘bear crossing’ sign.

In spite of the sign and the fact that I have seen a bear before, when a bear actually did cross the road in front of my car, I felt somewhat confused.

I asked my daughter, “Is that a really big, black dog?” “No, mom, it is a bear,” she said. I had a neural pathway for a dog crossing the road, but not a bear, though on one level I knew very well a bear had just crossed the road. This made me wonder.

I had no such trouble a few months later when a bear ran behind our apartment building, scaring my cat so badly that all its hair stuck straight out for about 30 minutes. “A bear just ran by, heading toward the shopping center,” I told the neighbors who came outside to see why the dogs were going crazy. They, being natives of the boonies, said simply, “Oh.”


If we cannot see a thing without previous experience, that means that we are somewhat limited in our ability to understand the universe; certainly those dimensions that quantum physicists tell us are beyond the three dimensions we are used to.

So all kinds of interesting things could be existing right next to us and we would not see them; kind of like the adorable tardigrades that live in your kitchen faucet.

I hope you don’t find the prospect of a crowded universe unsettling. I find it to be very exciting myself.

I see no ships 

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