We See What We Expect

by Andrea Chilcote

I’ve collected rocks all of my life. I’m as drawn to unique, rough stones on a hiking path as I am to beautiful crystal mineral specimens on display in specialty shops. And since moving to the desert 12 years ago, I have been picking up heart-shaped stones of varied size and composition from the many hiking trails I frequent. In recent years I’ve expanded my search to beaches where we vacation, and occasionally friends bring me specimens from their travels.

My home and property holds my rather large collection of “heart rocks,” as I call them. Recently I gathered them together to create a photograph for a special project. As I share that photo with friends, I’m often asked “How do you find these?” Where do you get them? One even asked “Are these natural or purchased in a store?” My response to them: “They are everywhere…just open your eyes.” These questions and my answer remind me of an age old principle: We see what we expect to see.

Friends who hike with me, neighbors as well as visitors from other states, understand this principle well. We need only to set an intention to look for and find heart rocks, and they show up, literally beneath our feet. They were always there of course, but until we believe they’re there and then look for them, they don’t “show up.”

Psychologists say we actively construct our perception of reality. By the time information reaches our brain, it’s combined with information from past experiences, skewing our perception. Maria Konnikova, who blogs about the psychology of decision making, says “It’s comforting to think our brains work like a camera,” though in fact that’s not the case. Inputs are subject to interpretation.

So what do heart-shaped stones and perception theories have to do with daily life? For me, this principle of seeing what we expect is the only plausible explanation for how supposed rational people can do irrational things, or how polarized our opinions can be on political or social issues while at the same time being aligned on key other perspectives. In short, it allows me to somehow understand that which is beyond my understanding, and that keeps me sane. It allows me to accept and seek to comprehend the different views of those around me. In short, it reduces judgment, the very thing that biased perception produces.

Some time ago, two friends visited us while in the early stages of a relationship. They were both surprised by and drawn to my heart rock collection. When a year later they announced wedding plans, they asked me if I would give them the gift of a heart stone I found in my desert. I had a grand time arranging a small assortment for them, and received a text thanking me while on their honeymoon. It contained a photo of two interlocking coral hearts they had found on the beach in the Turks. Their heart rock collecting had begun.

What do you wish to collect as you walk through life? Define it, and I bet you’ll see it show up on the path. I hope there’s a side benefit – a willingness to seek insight into the collections others gather along their paths.

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this. – Bertrand Russell