Plato's Cave - the patch and perception

You scan the horizon, your view an expanse of hill, field and sky, then you focus in on a detail, maybe a bird or a tree. Does your perceptual world contract to a shrunken fragment?  No, it stays the same size or maybe even expands.  As your attention homes in, so there is a mental blossoming – what was coarse-grained becomes finescale.  Uniform  Mondrian blocks show their true nature as a filigree of delicate tracery.

Like a baby in a pram, whose universe consists of its mother and perhaps some toys, it seems limited,  but this is the canvas upon which the everything plays out – all the sights smells and sounds to feed the baby’s developing brain.

And this is what I’ve found when I’ve focused in on a ‘patch'.

My first incarnation as a patch watcher was enforced.  A decade long stretch of chairbound  illness largely confined me to a living room.  My patch was the view through the window.  I had swapped the people, job, relationships and fully working body of my previous life, for a garden full of birds.

Luckily for me I had an obsession with birds. This exchange isn’t one that I relished but it was made bearable by my fascination with all things avian.  It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that I spent 10 years looking out of a window.  I didn't do things by halves, I recorded and documented everything, I produced an annual report and a website – nothing less than would be expected of the true obsessive!

The brain is greedy for input. If it doesn’t get the big screen, surroundsound experience it makes do with the portable TV version.  Not only does it make do, it compensates by elevating the smallest sight and sound into a kaleidoscope and a symphony.

Parkinson’s  Law states ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’  There are many corollaries of this. Mine would be: ‘perception expands so as to fill the amount to be perceived.’

I now have a functioning body, but I've held onto my patching proclivities. My daily walks take me around an area of fairly ordinary countryside in South Lancashire.  Starting the blog has given me the impetus to fully explore patch’s wildlife, and so aspects of nature have unfolded themselves in wonderful and unexpected ways.

When I started out I was primarily a bird watcher.  I then started to nurture, what had been fledgling, interests in other branches of natural history. This has boosted my enjoyment many-fold.  For example I used to experience a July slump in interest, as the birds had their post-breeding respite. Now, it’s a time of peak activity with moths to trap, dragonflies to photograph and plants to identify.
I had expected to hang up my patch-plodding boots in November and December, but this was another peak time for me, thoroughly enjoying getting to know the fungi, bryophytes and lichens of the patch.

If you just look for birds you’ll just see birds.

This is something  that’s struck me again and again,  the contrast between what’s ‘out there’ – in nature -  and what we perceive ‘in here’ – in our brains.  There seems to be an almost infinite wealth of species, behaviours, interactions, but all we ever see is the very tip of nature’s iceberg. We are the prisoners in Plato’s cave – all we see are the shadows cast by the fire.

 We can search out things that give us a glimpse into this hidden realm.  Owl pellets are a good example. The undergrowth is teeming with small mammals which we hardly ever see. Unlike the owls, we don’t  have the razor sharp senses to detect them, nor does our survival depend on catching them. However a rummage through a few pellets soon reveals a multitude of mammal bones – showing us just how abundant the voles, mice and shrews really are.

Then in October I was struck by the way morning dew revealed the amazing profusion of money spider webs – an almost unbroken carpet of gossamer.  An hour after sunrise the dew had gone taking with it the silken spectacle.

Opening the moth trap after a still night in August gives a window onto the usually unseen lepidopteran  hoards that frequent almost every back garden. Another veil temporarily is drawn back – the scales lifted from our eyes.

Even with these peeks through the keyhole our brains only give us half the story - or less - just a small fraction of everything that’s ‘out there’ in fact. It’s tempting to think that when we look at a scene there’s the real ‘us’ inside our brains watching the world like a cinemagoer - getting the whole picture. However the brain is fooling us.  Only a small area at the very centre of the gaze is in high definition, the rest is a blurry approximation.  The eyes dart around absorbing information, the rest of the picture is seamlessly filled in by mental slight of hand.

So it is with all the senses – the brain drip-feeds sensory information to our conscious minds, very much on a need to know basis. The mental model we have of the world has only a tenuous connection with the physical reality.

So we have to make do with crumbs from the perceptual table. But what crumbs! If we take the time to look nature gives us a feast for our senses and a banquet for the soul.

a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower...and a universe in a dew drop

Get this


  1. Beautiful images to accompany your post Phil, and interesting insights about perception, it’s a subject I studied for a while at uni - it’s fascinating how the brain processes and interprets information, and also how much it dismisses, unless other factors come into play and/or attention is steered in a particular direction.

    Like you, I and many others I know whose initial interest in nature was largely triggered by birds, has since expanded into an active interest in invertebrates, wildflowers and so many other things. Macro photography for me also sparked an interest in all things small – seeing a relatively tiny lifeform in great detail encouraged a desire to know what it was, understand what it was doing etc.

    1. Thanks a lot Jan - very kind. You see it in so many areas, not just looking at wildlife - we only a partial view of things. It's ok if people realize how partial their view is - the problem arises when they are fooled into thinking they're getting the whole picture...I'm thinking about politics...blimey how did I get on to that!
      On the subject of birds - well I mentioned my trip to Leighton Moss - I rather amazed myself by taking more of an interest in the bryophytes than the birds!

  2. The roundness of dewdrops, designs of spiderwebs, the curling of the Morning Glory In the late evening, the spider lily opening at the precise same time in the evening, the magic changing glow of sunlight late in the day ....


Post a Comment