If you are a facebook friend of mine, you'll know that earlier today I found what I thought to be a snake outside, and in my attempts to identify it, eventually realized that it was just a long, skinny lizard with tiny legs that I hadn't seen. The incident gave me pause to think about how interpret our entire reality through the filter of our minds, and sometimes that filter can just break on us.
In my example, I wasn't even the one to find the lizard. Davis was sniffing around and went rigid, then began to stalk something under the bush. I held him in and looked intently, trying to see what he could see, trying to force my mind to pick a pattern up in the brush to see through the camouflage that I assumed was there. Eventually I plucked out a patch of dried skin, connected it to a skinny scaley tail, and followed the body all the way to a head sitting still and watching back.
"Oh, it's a little snake, shedding its skin," I thought, pulling Davis's leash taut to interrupt his stalk, "but what kind of snake is it? Its head looks weird..." I continued to sit and watch intently, looking at the head and flicking through my internal catalog of snakes. I thought that its eyes were very small for a snake, it was a lizardy-looking face. I swept back and forth across its body, looking at the patterns on its scales, but nothing looked familiar. I took Davis in, got my camera to snap some close photos of the thing, then started looking up on the internet and trying to identify it.
I looked through all the common california snakes, asked my social network for ID help, but to no avail. After a fairly long time, looking at that weird head...that lizard-like head...I blinked and suddenly it all snapped into place. I instead looked up common California lizards, saw a more familiar scale pattern in a photo of a Southern Alligator Lizard, then looked back at my own photo. In the blink of an eye, the reality of my static photo changed.
The legs. They were *right there.* It was a lizard, not a snake, and the legs were right there in my own photo that I had taken and been studying intently. I'm sure anyone who saw me post the photo was probably thinking "Lisa, what's wrong with you? That's a lizard, it has legs!"
But at the time that my mind was in snake-id mode, my mind filtered them out. It turned them into debris and mulch and dismissed them to background noise as I instead laser-focused on its head. I was already too deep down the "snake" tree thinking about species that my mind didn't even consider checking the other top level "types of reptile" branches, even when I thought and even wrote "Its face looks kind of like a lizard." Even then my mind did not make the connection!
It's a little unsettling when something like this happens because it reminds me that even when our little brain filters are doing the best they can to process the world, sometimes they just don't work right. And that's all we have to go on. The only thing standing between us and the world is how our mind processes it, and you don't really have a way of knowing that your brain-filter is broken until after it finally kicks in and slides reality into place.
It's kind of like temporarily sliding into the brain of a madman, and that's terrifying, because you discover that being mad apparently feels completely normal.