Perception – is seeing believing?

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

 

Two very different facets of my past experience came to mind this week which were triggered by an article in Our Dogs by Malcolm Willis’s article about the current controversy in German Shepherd Dogs.  Malcolm has been a friend for many years and when the Animal Care College (www.animalcarecollege.co.uk) was running regular seminars on Judging and Breeding in the 1980/90s he was a regular speaker.  He was greatly appreciated and admired by students, many of whom have taken top awards in our Winners Supplement over the years and who are judging at the highest levels today. The thousands of hours of work Malcolm has put in, his publications, his talks, advice and his articles have been of immense value to the world of dogs and I know from personal experience that he has always been willing to listen and bring thoughtful and knowledgeable input into any problem about dogs, breeding and genetics brought to him.

In reading his article I was reminded about an important factor of these courses written for judges and breeders: that of ‘perception’.  I must first say that in the first edition of the Judging Diploma course which I wrote in 1980, I omitted this very important section and it was one of our students at the very first seminar we ran at Maidenhead who pointed out this significant oversight.   In fact, he developed his ideas in his thesis and with his permission, I used the illustrations he created in my own lectures for many years.  The key element in the discussion is that the brain ‘interprets’ what we see physically and the conclusions we come to mentally, through the filter of our experience so that our internal vision of both our ideas and surroundings may not be the same as the person next to us or with whom we are having a discussion.

At its simplest I use the example of the way in which the eye works.  You will know that at the back of the eye, not quite in the centre but close to it, the optic nerve ‘connects’ to the retina in an area called the optic nerve cup.  The retina itself is covered with the optic nerve fibres (receptors) which connect to the nerve and carry information of light, shade and colour to the optic nerve and thence to the brain where it is processed to give us a visual experience.  Despite the advertising for a well-known camera which implies that our brain collects photocopied ‘images’ as we see things around us, we do not have ‘pictures’ in our mind – if we did there would be a round blank space in the centre of each because the optic nerve cup does not have any receptors so cannot ‘see’.  The reason that we do not go around with the moving blank space in everything we look at is that our brain ‘fills in’ any gaps.  I discovered last year that I have mild glaucoma and a quadrant of my right eye has been damaged so there are very few receptors in that area.  Fortunately it was discovered and has responded well to treatment but I would not have known had not my optician recognised an anomaly during an eye test two years ago.  As far as I am concerned I see as normal because my brain ‘collects’ electro-chemical links from the rest of the receptors which give me what is ‘normal’ vision.

In an experiment carried out in the 1950’s a man was given a pair of prismatic goggles which when worn appeared to turn his world upside down.  He wore them for a few days and one morning he woke up to find that even wearing the goggles he was ‘seeing’ everything the right way up – until he took them off when his world was once again the wrong way up.  A few days later, he was back to normal.  Many people wear two different contact lenses, one for short sight and one for long sight.  Their brain quickly learns to use the correct eye for what they are looking at so they appear to have normal vision without spectacles.

Taking this a step further, you will have noticed that when you take a picture of a tall building the resulting photograph is distorted so the building looks as if it is falling over backwards.  It did not look like that when you looked up at because your brain made the necessary correction so that it looked ‘normal’ – it did what modern photo manipulation computer programmes can do automatically – in your mind.

What has this got to do with dogs? ‘ Simples’, as the Meercats would say.  If you as the judge stand in the ring and look at, say, a Border terrier on the ground a few feet in front of you it looks perfectly normal in terms of its conformation.  If you took a picture of it, it would look very short on the leg because of the inevitable distortion the camera would give to the image.  Your brain is ‘adjusting’ the image so that it looks ‘right’.  This means you have no idea whether the dog is long in back, short on the leg, has a head in proportion to its body, a tail that is at the right angle or whether it has the correct depth of chest.  You can only be sure of these proportions by either putting the dog on the table or crouching down so that you can see the proportions correctly.  A judge recent complimented me on a bitch I was showing because she was the ‘correct’ square outline.  She is not – it is one of her two obvious faults – but the judge was standing above her so was not able to assess the length of leg in relations to the length of body.
If you are looking at a dog (crouching down so you see its true proportion) against a breeze block wall – that is one where the sizes of the blocks are quite large – it will look smaller that it would against a wall of ordinary (smaller) bricks.  ‘That Whippet looks big,’ you might hear someone say.  It may not be – what is the person seeing it in relation to?

In the same way our minds interpret information through the filter of our experience.  If we are comfortable and used to the look of a breed we love, we may not be able to see what others see in terms of its outline, feature or shape and not be prepared to consider other views.  And those who believe that such an outline, feature or shape are unacceptable may not be prepared to read or seriously consider research which might, just might, undermine their view.

You might bear some of these thoughts in mind when you are next in a discussion.  You may find you have a different perspective.

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