Judgment is a basic animal process. A dog’s brain instantly processes hundreds of data points of sounds, smells, visual cues and behavioral phenomena to determine which animals are friendly and which are not. The reactions are so quick because these data points get crossed checked against a set of prior experiences to instantly produce a result. If a dog sees bared teeth, it immediately thinks “hostile” or “danger” even if the other dog just has some peanut butter stuck in its gums. It doesn’t rationally think about the bared teeth or break down what’s going on. It sees bared teeth, it’s mind quickly says “hey, that data point is scary!” and rings the “fear” alarm. This is exactly how the human brain works. (See How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer). The difference is, we have way more processing power, and way more storage. This means we can make a lot more judgments based on fear.
The bad news is, this process isn’t going away. It’s how we’re hard wired. Better to get scared by that rustle in the grass than to ignore it and get done in by a snake. The good news is, we can definitely temper this impulse, and to some extent, train ourselves out of it.
The Ancient Greeks had an idea that might be useful here. The Stoics believed that our minds, bombarded by millions of stimuli every second, first process these stimuli to create a mental impression, or phantasia. From this the mind generates a preception, or a hypolepsis. Gregory Hays, in his introduction to Meditations, compares the phantasia to a photographic negative and the hyolepsis to a print: we hope the print is faithful to the original, but there can be many flaws.
Chief among these flaws are inappropriate value judgments: declaring something “good” or “bad” that is neither “good” nor “bad”. This is where the importance in distinguishing between the impression and the perception comes into play. Let’s look at Hays’ example:
My impression that my house has just burned down is simply that — an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. by contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression, but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression by my powers of hypolepsis. It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem.
The goal then is to separate the impression from the perception. You can’t control the impression, and you probably can’t control the immediate perception, just because of human physiology. But, you can take a beat, think about the impression v. the perception, and alter your opinion.