What Do You See?

I recently had quite an exchange with, among others, a regular contributor to this blog, Herb Van Fleet. It began with my praising President Obama’s speech at Moorehouse College and proceeded to a discussion about the Trayvon Martin case. I suggest anyone interested in human perception, in how one person sees the world as compared to another, follow that very interesting (and ongoing) exchange. Make your own judgment as to who is being led by a false perception of events surrounding the Martin-Zimmerman case, and who is not.

All of this, however, got me thinking, as I came across some seemingly unrelated articles this weekend.

Look at this photo:

An image from a surveillance camera captured Trayvon Martin before his encounter with George Zimmerman.

Now, look at this photo:

rgiii photo

Finally, take a look at this, much more famous, picture:

All of us, for one reason or another, look at these pictures a little differently. We may think they tell us something important, possibly something essential, about the person pictured.

Let’s start with Obama. What does that photo tell us about him? Well, for some folks, it tells us a lot:

Barack Obama Was High on Cocaine During “The Missing Hours” of the Benghazi Attack Last September

This “story” was promoted, as Charles Pierce points out, by The Washington Examiner, which Pierce describes as “a minor satellite in the wing-nut universe.” But even so, the story is advanced not because it is true, but because it conforms to the way some small, but significant, percentage of the population sees our president. It’s what they see when they see that photo above, or some other similar photo, or, for some smaller number of people, any photo of him at all.

Now, let’s go back to the top photo. That’s Trayvon Martin, purchasing some items at a convenience store on February 26, 2012, just before he was to encounter George Zimmerman, who shot him dead a little later that night in Sanford, Florida.

Zimmerman, who lived in the gated community in which he first spotted Martin and who was apparently a neighborhood watch coordinator of some sort, didn’t know the 17-year-old kid. Thus, he didn’t know the kid was headed toward the home of his father’s fiancée, who also lived in the gated community.

In order to properly follow the upcoming trial involving George Zimmerman, it’s necessary to understand and not forget this essential fact: Zimmerman didn’t know a single thing about Trayvon Martin. Not a single thing. But what he did know is what he saw when he saw Trayvon Martin: “a suspicious guy” who “looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something.” That’s what he first told police on the night he shot Martin.

Evolution endowed us with the ability to quickly identify things that could hurt us, like spiders and snakes. But not all spiders and snakes are out to get us. Much of that fear is irrational and a waste of mental energy. But having the ability to quickly perceive such danger obviously helped us survive and become the misjudging creatures we often are.

We are also conditioned to interpret the things we see.  Sometimes nurturing or experience teaches us to see things that may or may not be there in any particular future case. Some people look at that picture of Trayvon Martin at a convenience store and they see a kid about to do something bad. Others look at him and say it’s just another kid in a hoodie buying some Skittles and iced tea.

Perception matters, as a dead Trayvon Martina and a live George Zimmerman, who is on trial for second-degree murder, demonstrates. And it should matter to all of us that the way we perceive things on first glance, the initial judgments we make, have a high probability of error. Further, it should matter to us that part of our perception is influenced by our culture, by the way we were raised in this culture and by the way we have been treated within it. Thus, it helps us to become better thinkers, better people, if we remember these facts about ourselves and, just as important, about others.

Let’s now move to the second photo above. The one where the guy is posing before some empty boxes. Provided you haven’t seen this photo before, what do you see? What is it the image conjures up in your mind? What conclusions could you, would you, draw from this shot? Is he just a kid acting silly? Some kind of street thug? What?

It turns out, of course, that the kid in the photo (which he Tweeted) was a military brat who was born in Okinawa, Japan. He graduated from High School a semester early and graduated from college in three years, with a bachelors degree in political science and a 3.67 GPA. And he did all that, and more, while playing football for the Baylor University Bears in Waco, Texas. Oh, yeah, he won a Heisman Trophy and now is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C., as the much-loved quarterback of the Washington Redskins. The team signed him to a $21.1 million dollar four-year deal.

But I’ll bet, unless you knew who Robert Lee Griffin III was, you couldn’t have looked at the photo above and guessed one single thing on his thus-far impressive résumé of life. RG3, as he is now called, tweeted that photo in order to, as ESPN put it, show “thanks” to the fans who, because they adore him, bought many items on his and his soon-to-be-wife’s wedding registry.

Go back and look at that photo of RG3 again. And remember that, even though Rush Limbaugh thinks he can spot an angry liberal by just looking, none of us is well-equipped to make serious judgments upon first glance, or on the basis of a brief acquaintance with the facts.

Sure, there are times when a quick analysis is all you have to go on. It’s often better to let fear rule when it comes to spiders and snakes than make a lethal mistake, for instance. Modern life, though, is much different from the lives our ancient ancestors lived. We have the time to step back and take a more objective look, as we can in the case of President Obama and RG3. We have the time to examine our perceptions, to see why we are seeing what we see when we see it.

If George Zimmerman had done that on February 26, 2012, if he had taken a little more time to think about what he was actually seeing, if he had let the police do their jobs, he wouldn’t be awaiting trial in a Florida courtroom, worrying about going to prison.

And Trayvon Martin, whatever his faults were or weren’t as a 17-year-old kid, would still be alive.



  1. Excellent analysis, Duane. This of course is why civilized societies have judicial systems and rules of evidence. It occurs to me in the same context that Congressional committees would do well to adopt some similar code of discipline for their hearings but I’m not seeing much of that lately.


    • Jim,

      Your comment reminds me that it is impossible to have “civilized societies” without “judicial systems and rules of evidence.” And it also reminds me why Congress these days is something short of a “civilized society.”



  2. I like your comments and agree with them. The following is a vast over-simplification, but nevertheless useful, I think:

    Studies I have read indicate the human brain can be usefully thought of in three parts from an evolutionary point of view (that sound you just heard was the Creationists droppiing out of this conversation). The first, and most primitive part, is the reptilian brain, consisting of the brain stem and surrounding tissue, This part of the brain is the part that gives us the immediate response to percieved danger like the spider or snake, or someone swinging a club at you. Those kinds of reactions, as you said, are quick and largely without thought.

    The mammalian brain is above and around the reptilian brain. This part of the brain and its constituent parts is more sophisticated and gives rise to our sense of belonging, of our place in the tribal hierarchy; basically, our identity. You could think of a pack of wolves, and how they discern where they are in the pack and how they can rise in the pack. Clearly, this “thinking” (but it is thinking) translates differently in herd animals than pack animals, and both are different than lone hunters such as cats. Humans play this game in a very sophisticated way, inextricably bound up in our social structure. Some of this is what goes on when we look at an individual and make judgements about their place in the hierarchy based solely on appearance or actions. Some thinking goes into these judgements, but usually not at the time the judegement is made; it comes from previously thought out (and sometimes very incomplete) mental processing.

    The third part of the human brain is the cerebral cortex, ostensibly the part where logical, rational thought takes place – the part where we look at facts and make logical decisions based on the facts we perceive (the sound you heard then was the “hey, look at me!” and “chest-thumper” categories dropping out). This part of the human brain can overrule the other two parts, to the extent that you can actually hold a spider or snake in your hands without freaking out. This part of the brain can give rise to thoughts like “Hmmm. Duane is showing us these pictures for a reason; I wonder what I’m missing about them from my first glance?”

    This part involves thinking, rational thinking (that sound you just heard was a large portion of the human race dropping out). If you try very hard, you can experience fear/anger, and before you react, ask “Why am I afraid/angry?”, then use your forebrain to look at the facts and not your perceptions to make a decision. My experience, sadly, is that thinking in that way doesn’t happen often enough, in myself or others. But we should keep trying.


    • Nagarjuna,

      I have to say I am impressed by your writing style, not to mention the content.

      The triune model of the brain, as you mention, is a simplified explanation of a very complex organ that has adaptively evolved over long stretches of time (possibly even more than 6000 years!). Because (as you so elegantly and clearly illustrate here) its explanatory value is so high, it has, despite various challenges from neuroscientists who do work in comparative neurology, survived as a way to understand how our brains got here, and, uh, got us here.

      And I want to say that I am damn glad that there are people who dedicate their lives to studying such things as comparative neurology, as opposed to, say, studying theology (something I used to do all the time).

      As an aside, here is a link to an abstract of a study in The Journal of Comparative Neurology in which the researchers “examined the distribution of somata and dendrites of DNs in the cockroach brain by retrogradely filling their axons from the cervical connective.” That, even though I am at a loss to understand it, sounds much more promising than studying how many angels can dance inside Rush Limbaugh’s navel, or whatever it was bright people were studying in the heady days of Scholasticism in medieval Europe.

      Finally, I am damn glad that there are people out there reading this blog who care about this issue enough to write in and discuss it in such a high-level way. Bravo!

      Thanks for your contribution, my friend.


      PS: You wrote,

      The third part of the human brain is the cerebral cortex, ostensibly the part where logical, rational thought takes place – the part where we look at facts and make logical decisions based on the facts we perceive (the sound you heard then was the “hey, look at me!” and “chest-thumper” categories dropping out). This part of the human brain can overrule the other two parts, to the extent that you can actually hold a spider or snake in your hands without freaking out.

      My particular cerebral cortex is no match for my fear of spiders and snakes, and no amount of rational thought would enable me to “hold a spider or snake” in my hands “without freaking out.” I have, however, found a way to deal with my fear of flying and dentistry, thanks to science, which favored me with the invention of Valium. So, in a way, I suppose, I have used rational thought (even though it is someone else’s—we are social animals, after all!) to overrule the more primitive parts of my noggin’.



  3. King Beauregard

     /  May 28, 2013

    Repeating myself, but all the same: just imagine if George Zimmerman hadn’t been trailing a black kid named Trayvon, but a white kid named Travis. Change that one detail, and there would have been no question from any quarter that Zimmerman was in the wrong. It would have been an open-and-shut case in people’s minds: “Wait, that guy starts following a teenager just because he doesn’t know him? That guy isn’t patrolling a neighborhood, he’s stalking people and looking to pick a fight.”

    But change Travis to Trayvon, and suddenly people think George Zimmerman was behaving justifiably. If a change in the teenager’s skin color reverses your opinions about this case, what does that say about you?


    • King B,

      You can’t make that point often enough for my tastes. I will reiterate with my emphasis:

      If a change in the teenager’s skin color reverses your opinions about this case, what does that say about you?





  4. Duane,

    To your point here, it may be of interest to you and your readers to check out Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.” Gladwell’s premise comes from the psychological perspective rather than the more interesting understanding of neurobiology.

    On his website, Gladwell tells what his purpose is in writing the book, saying, in part, “Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings–thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking–its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking.” In “Blink” I’m trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?”

    This, of course, contradicts what you wrote above, “We have the time to step back and take a more objective look . . . . We have the time to examine our perceptions, to see why we are seeing what we see when we see it.” I believe Gladwell would disagree.

    As we saw in the Zimmerman/Martin encounter, the events that unfolded were driven directly from the gut; there was no time to reflect, to intellectualize. Zimmerman made a big mistake approaching Martin in the first place. But Martin also made a big mistake in knocking Zimmerman to the ground and continuing the beat the hell out of him. I know you don’t agree with me on this, but I believe Trayvon has to take some responsibility here. He could have engaged Zimmerman in conversation, but he choose a right hook instead. And that choice, that misguided blink, got him killed. But, again, that’s just my opinion.



    • Herb, I am a big fan of Gladwell, having read with great interest “Blink”, “Tipping Point”, and “Outlier”. I have “What the Dog Saw” in my reading queue, and look forward to it. My take on the books I have read is that “Outlier” is the most interesting to me.

      If you like these kinds of books, you may also like (I sound like a book club ad) “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. He has another one published – I haven’t bought it yet.

      Both of these gentlemen write very cogently and are not trying to “sell” you their point of view, although one can discern that they certainly have one.


    • Herb,

      I confess to exactly no real acquaintance with Gladwell. There is only 24 hours in a day, and I have to leave time for not only my regular reading, but for consuming nourishing amounts of alcohol. (Not to mention that Springs and Summers are filled with following my youngest son around the area’s various baseball parks.)

      In any case, based on your and Nagarjuna’s recommendation, I will acquaint myself with Gladwell, at least so as to not feel grossly inferior to either one of you. Diamond I like very much, even though he can be painfully objective at times!

      Finally, here we go again on the Zimmerman/Martin case: I wish I knew how Trayvon Martin’s actual encounter with Zimmerman went down. As it is, we will only have one account (as far as I know) how that initial counter developed. Was it Trayvon who struck first? And, if so, why did he do so? Does Stand Your Ground entitle him to the presumption of a lawful action? And so on and so on and so on. Hopefully, there will be some semblance of justice in the case. In the mean time, the mechanism for achieving that semblance of justice is at work. And I, at least, find that a good thing.



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