“We not only believe what we see, to some extent we see what we believe.” —Richard Gregory, former Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at University of Bristol & author of Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing
The idea that we see what we believe is a thought-provoking twist on the saying, “when I see it, I’ll believe it.” Imagine looking out the window and seeing bright sun and blue sky, and, bolstered by the warmth inside your house from which you look, believing that the day is warm. And you leave your coat at home. But when you step out of your car at the end of a half-hour commute during which the heater was on—a car which you’d entered from your warm garage, in January—and your coat’s not on, you may step out to find instead it’s one of those crisp 30-degree-cold kind of days. Two of your five senses’ contradicting reports have collided. Eyes “saw” & sent your brain information perceived from an experiential perspective (blue skies and sun=summer warmth), but your bare skin tells you another kind of truth. A more immediate one.
Last Saturday I went shopping, and at 4:30PM I was waiting to cross from the NE corner of a wide intersection of two county arterials, cold groceries in my backpack. The last time I’d walked across that intersection—five days earlier—there was a crash being cleaned up, and not half an hour after I was there, another crash was reported, with injuries. It is what county governments might call a “high-crash intersection.” It has those Flashing Yellow Left-Turn Arrows (FYAs) that the county started putting up everywhere in 2010, and the speed limit is 45mph, which means people are allowed to drive 55mph without getting tickets. I hoped I’d get across safely.
Insulated from outside sound and air, drivers must rely solely on the messages their eyes send their brains, in order to, for example, decide if they believe it’s “safe” to turn left across the path of the drivers opposite them, who are coming straight on, who may be receiving a yellow light and deciding, based on their own sight, whether to speed up or stop. With the new Flashing Yellow Arrows, turning seems like the turning driver’s prerogative. But at 55mph, don’t people often speed up when their green light turns yellow? At that speed, it seems just as dangerous to step on the brake. And 35mph looks like 45mph looks like 55mph when a car is coming straight at you. So, it’s two drivers, from seemingly opposite but really completely different perspectives, having the same thought process: should I stay or should I go. One is judging when to turn left across the path of an oncoming car driven by someone judging whether to speed up or slow down. But what if both inaccurately believe that it’s safe to proceed?
“When a motorist injures or kills another road user, safety professionals and advocates serious about Vision Zero should recognize that the driver was also put in an unsafe and unfair situation […] Traffic engineering can cause the lapses in human judgment that lead to crashes. It’s pretty simple: Had this signal remained a protected left turn treatment as it was in 2015, this crash would have never occurred. Ideally, agencies like ITD and ACHD will take note and have these FYAs removed.” – Don Kostelec, League Certified Instructor with League of American Bicyclists
This conflict, which at best causes low-grade stress, is by design. It’s a very small group of people who’ve decided to put us all in that situation. This group includes government employees, the engineering and electrical contractors they shop from, and the automotive industry. And of course, toss in a few drivers who want to go fast, very fast, regardless of how a person in the bike lane or crosswalk feels about that.
Back to last Saturday afternoon, the crosswalk box was about to change and give me the signal to walk—a cycle I know from experience—and I stepped closer to the curb, getting ready. There was a person across from me waiting to cross also, mirroring my body language: approaching the curb, looking up, right, left at the traffic signals, in anticipation. I had music coming through my earphones but still suddenly heard a long, very loud, unexpected noise to my left—honking—and as I turned my head toward the sound, I saw…well, I know now, of course, what I saw. But I wish I could talk to a professor of neuropsychology to understand what was going on in my brain, for the couple of seconds that felt like half an hour. Because what I “saw” in those seconds, made utterly no sense.
Maybe other crash witnesses can attest to this. Time slowed down almost completely. There was the honking, and then what I could perceive only as “a commotion.” In a way, in that second, I felt blind; I was seeing, but without the typical comprehension that comes with seeing. There was motion, then changing motion. There were two cars. But their movement made zero sense. My brain, in those couple of seconds, seemed like a deer in headlights. The next thing I truly “knew” was a sense of danger. The cars were locked together, and the velocity of the straightbound car was pushing them right toward me, and finally, I had a clear message to my body from my brain: GET BEHIND THE UTILITY BOX. Yes, the same utility box that is usually a problem, because it blocks visibility of me walking from drivers’ views. This time it was the only available shield. The cars came to a stop before reaching the curb, but still, it was, one might say, a “close call.” And it was scary.
But I’m fascinated with the 2 seconds where my eyes could simply not make out what they were seeing, or rather, my brain lacked any sort of experiential template for the visual information. I realize it’s in part because it’s not something I expect to happen in an intersection. I expect the cars going back and forth in front of me to stop, while I cross according to the crosswalk robot. The “it’s a crash” message came later, as I called emergency services, after I’d slowly emerged from behind the tall, rectangular, gray utility box and saw the drivers trying to move their cars out of the way of other cars—whose drivers just kept on going, as if they didn’t care or understand this just happened. When I received the “get the heck out of the way” message from my brain, I didn’t fully understand the crash part yet, either. I was only able to sense (accurately) that this confusing mass was coming fast toward me.
The other surprising thing is that afterward, my first instinct—and it was a pretty strong impulse—was to go on and cross the street (the crosswalk light was green and counting down). My impulse was to flee—get out of there!—just like the drivers maneuvering their cars around the mangled metal chunks of car strewn in the road, chunks that had severed off and skidded away from their host. People continued driving along, as if nothing involving mortal humans had happened. From my perspective, cars had crashed; cars had come at me, endangering me; the cars are dangerous & must be fled. Okay—I gotta go!
But then the people started coming out of the crashed cars. When they did—a young man, a middle-aged man, and a girl of about ten—that’s when my brain kicked in to ask if anyone was hurt (I hadn’t thought of that while their terrifying cars were coming right at me a moment earlier). So I could not leave them, and also, I was an official witness.
Maybe because the news media and police personify cars (“the gray car didn’t stop for the light;” “a car was parking in the gunman’s spot;” “did you see what that car did”), we do too.
Maybe we all personify cars a little too much. People even become their cars. “I love that car! That car is me.” That makes it hard to make sense of the carnage and cost caused by all the collective cars (cars are even our so-called “transportation system,” even though lots of people don’t have cars). At the same time it personifies cars, society dehumanizes people when it doesn’t like something they do, or can’t make sense of it. Hence the term, “mobs.” Mobs of course are made up of individual people, just as individual cars mob a road I may need to walk across.
Here in the Northwest, our Portland and Seattle news networks have been flooded for months by commercials featuring Franklin Graham, for the Billy Graham organization. In them he says things like, “it’s a beautiful part of our country but there’s a lot of unrest here,” and that “people don’t know what to do, how to fix it.” Fix what, exactly? He doesn’t say, but Graham believes “God is the solution” and invites people to call a number to have people pray with them. The commercials are still airing even after last week’s insurgency, all the way across the country from the rain & evergreens of the Pacific NW.
Watching the insurgency at the nation’s capital that day was like watching that car crash: it was something that made no sense. My impulse, from the great distance of the Northwest, was to be detached. To go on with my day. To be unemotional. That is until I saw pictures of an overturned file cabinet, and papers strewn all over a congressional office and desk. That mess was something my mind could finally comprehend. It was disorganization. Order turned to chaos. I felt the first pang in my heart. And then, the man being crushed in a doorway.
Apart from witnessing such details, there’s just no context for what happened. Around the country, we (The People) are now indubitably in widely varying and evolving states of comprehension. That day though, it was like most of us were inside cars, and had only one physical sense to rely on: our eyes. We weren’t bruised or bleeding. We couldn’t hear inside the capital building. Only those in and around the building could feel it in the moment, for those several hours.
Our congressional leaders’ job is to listen to what the people, their constituents, tell them to do, and then do that. But there’s no way they listen to everyone, not even everyone who speaks up. How do they decide who to listen to?
It’s like with the county department of transportation, which supposedly must do what constituents tell it to do, or does it? It provides infrastructure, but for whom? Lots of people who drive every day want faster roads, more lanes, and even Flashing Yellow Arrows. They don’t consider that a better bus system is another avenue. They are thinking from what they know: their car. Lanes for their car. Ways that they can drive faster. It’s a political ideology. Ideologies don’t necessarily take into account those who live differently, with different views. Within an ideology, data is manipulated to make justifications like, “we found XYZ thing is safer,” where “safer than what” is not stated. A driving ideology, which is the one in power, can’t let itself admit there are people who can’t accurately judge whether to turn when facing a 55mph speeding car. The ideology doesn’t consider what it’s like for the person using non-car transportation. It only thinks of itself. It is all it knows.
I’m hearing that people who voted for our 45th president are still somehow supporting him, in spite of the destructive events and attitudes inspired and wrought by his presidency. After working hard to create and sell justifications, it’s very hard to let them go. Anyone who’s ever been wrong in an argument and didn’t want to admit it knows that.
Maybe Trump is like the Flashing Yellow Arrow signals popping up in our infrastructure. Some might argue, “Hey, FYAs let people commute without hardly ever stopping at a turn light.” They might isolate some value—a rising stock portfolio, more and bigger cars sold, X many more cars able to fit on the streets—and then use that value to claim a generally destructive thing is “worth it.” Sure, Flashing Yellow Arrows are at the root of many costly crashes, often deadly. True, hospitals struggle to deal with extra preventable injuries on top of Coronavirus. But maybe it’s simply too hard for those who supported FYAs in the first place to stop believing in them. The engineers still see what they believe. Likewise, even after last week’s climactic crash into Washington, D.C., some Trump supporters are still standing by their man. That’s something much more of America is going to have to believe, before we can see it.
To see it awakens questions of prevention: how did anyone get to the point of such staunch belief in that one man—in what he says, his name, his ideology—that they stormed Congress, dragging the entire country along with them? Maybe it started small, the way each stressful left turn starts to add up.