In the natural world, perception and awareness are funny things. How we see and interpret the world makes humans an interesting animal for study.  We can be fooled by many things and are often influenced by things in front of our face and plain sight, yet we never see.  Why is this?

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OK now. Did you see the gorilla?  It’s a great example of how what we put our attention on can influence what we see or don’t see. We may think we are aware of our surroundings, but often miss a lot when we are focused on a specific task and thereby miss things, though within our field of view. Of course,  by  choosing  to use narrow focused vision, it will increase our chance to complete a given task successfully. This is why I don’t like to talk when I am concentrating on making a good run through a difficult rapid.  Why focus matters when running whitewater? What you look at is where you go. If you let fear of a peripheral hole distract you, it will draw you into the maelstrom, like a moth to the light. There may be gorillas in our midst, but sometimes it is best not to see them.

For further example, when trolling for steelhead and one of your rods abruptly goes down, it isn’t always the fish you think it is? Sometimes, your plug snags the bottom as the boat is being pulled upstream. Your immediate thought is a fish, because that is what you expect to see.  But, things just are not always seen for what they really are.  It takes a different perspective to appreciate that what you once thought is, isn’t.

One time, I decided I wanted to learn what it was like to see the river like steelhead do. So I dawned scuba gear and went diving.  Learn to be one with the fish, I thought.  As I got into successionally heavier current, rocks on the bottom suddenly began to fly by me, or so it seemed.  It created the sensation that I was in outer space and flying through an asteroid belt. How weird.

Another time, as I was sitting in my tipi, watching the stars through the smoke flaps, I felt like I was in a conical-shaped space capsule cruising through the Milky Way.  Or on a different day, I was driving on a snowy highway, barely able to see through all the wind-blown snow flying past my windshield. Again, I was mesmerized into an eerie  Twilight Zone-like world, flying through grey space as millions of tiny white orbs raced by me.

Often when we encounter things, we are fooled by our first impressions.  Why? What is going on? What if we believed what our first impressions are trying to tell us? How we react to our encounters with various situations in life, matter.  Is this some sort of  survival mechanism coming out and being played in front of us? What happens if we make a snap judgment, based on our first gut level reaction to something? Is it really in our best interest to react to first impressions? Why do we do this?

Well, people who study people, have a name for this: The Affect Heuristic. It simply says that we humans let our emotions tell us if something is good or bad, that we over-estimate rewards and tend to stick to our first impressions. We tend to make poor decisions in the face of favorable odds when we pay more attention to  our gut level  first impressions of things.   This most likely is a survival mechanism worked out by our ever  evolving human traits.

Paying attention to simple analysis of dangerous situations kept  our ancestors out of the mouths of lions. If you ignore your gut in favor of intellectualizing about the pros and cons, or risk value of good or bad, it often takes too long, and you become food for something else. Our unconscious minds often recognize things our conscious minds don’t.  So first impressions are important. Or at least historically, and early on in the process of evolution.

However, the modern world is more complicated now, and first impressions may or may not keep one out of trouble, or allow correct analysis of a situation.  So when scouting rapids or studying animal tracks, first impressions often lead us astray in our assessments of reality.  At first the hole may look impossible to run, but closer scrutiny reveals a potential soft spot for good potential to get a boat through right side up. Or the track on the ground that looks like a cat, turns out to be a dog, when closer examination reveals toe nails in the snow. Cats walk with claws retracted.

Bottomline: pay attention to your gut, but know that it often tricks you.  Don’t jump too soon to potentially erroneous conclusions. Keeping your boat right side up isn’t always as easy as it may at first seem.