“Reification” is a five-dollar word that means turning an idea in the mind into a material thing. The verbs “specify,” “objectify,” “incorporate,” “substantiate,” “materialize,” or “realize” might serve as well (though that’s not how we typically use them). In the case of misidentifying Fred, what I did in my mind was reify, “impersonate,” “incarnate,” “or embody” a stranger as my friend.

Watching plays, films, and TV serials, we believe in the characters so much that we forget they are actors playing roles scripted in advance. We are completely taken in, or rather, take ourselves in, wanting to believe in the plot as an actual event unfolding before our eyes. The reification of God from being a concept in the human mind to the so-called creator, prime mover, and ruler of the universe serves as the archest example of the elevation of an idea from subjective to objective status in the history of the world, which exhibits the power of the human imagination in believing what it chooses to believe.

We do not simply look at a scene and see what is laid out before our eyes. Perception is a creative act, a fitting-together of details into a pattern we are prepared to recognize. Prepared by having seen it before many times or accompanied by strong emotion so that we build pathways in our brains by strengthening the synapses that link them together to form a route blazed with recognizable features (color, size, shape, contour, motion, texture, location, etc.). If a particular array of features can be recalled as a unit, then we are likely to remember it when we meet it again. Expecting to see something in a certain locale, we open our minds to just that thing so we are more likely to see it when we come across something that might resemble it.

The key point is to have something in mind before we come across it, in mind as a particular structure within our neural network of interconnected neurons and cortical columns. Expectancy gives priority and ready access to just that mental structure, saving a huge amount of time and effort in suiting ourselves to our worldly environment and, conversely, that environment to us.

 

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356. Believing Is Seeing

November 12, 2014

When my family moved to Seattle in late August of 1947, I was eager to see the Rocky Mountains for the first time. As we drove west through flatlands in eastern Colorado, I expectantly peered from the back seat through the windshield, but saw only low clouds blocking my view of any mountains. The clouds grew taller as we approached, and for half-an-hour I grew more desperate to view the Rockies. At last, when I began seeing trees and valleys among the clouds, I realized that I had seen the Rockies all along, but their being snow-covered in late August prevented me from recognizing what I was looking at. Had it been winter, I would have seen them sooner. My summer expectations got in the way of my seeing.

It’s not so much that seeing is believing as just the reverse: believing is seeing (or hearing). “It’s true if you think so,” says Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. We see “what our prejudices presume to be there,” says Thoreau. Travelers on Cape Cod once reported a black man holding a white man at knifepoint by the side of the road, a scene that turned out to be a reporter from a local radio station holding a microphone to the lips of a man he was interviewing. In going through old National Geographics from the nineteen-teens and twenties, I have come across photographs of bare-breasted African women nursing babies under the title, “Black Madonna,” suggesting a verbal veil of social acceptability to make the image suitable for a prudish and mostly White middle-class readership.