This is the second in a six-part series about the small but surprisingly annoying price I paid for deciding the pandemic was over and that it was time to start living my life. But it’s also about some of the lessons I learned about perception, from not knowing I had contracted Covid.
In the last installment, I explained that all through the pandemic, whenever I had a scratchy throat, a cough, or a runny nose, and before there were any rapid tests, I’d open up a tube of toothpaste and if I could smell it, I assumed I didn’t have Covid. That simple test was very reassuring, and it apparently worked every time. I say this because, after a recent cold, where I came up negative for Covid TWICE on a rapid test, I tried my own test again. I smelled NOTHING.
I was so surprised to (for the first time) not smell anything, I doubted the results: I held soap, perfume, ammonia, pretty much anything with a strong smell, up to my nose and there was no smell what-so-ever. I even brought the open bottle of ammonia to my wife and said: “Do you smell anything?”
She waved her hands, indicating that I was to move away and not bring the bottle any closer: “Of course I can smell it from across the room.” Only now was I convinced that I had had covid. When you lose a sense completely you simply refuse to believe it!
As I explained in the last installment there was a period of about a week prior to that moment, where I DIDN’T realize I had this covid-related loss of taste and smell. I falsely accused my wife of leaving out some key ingredients in one of my favorite meals because it didn’t taste right; I told her my wet sneakers didn’t smell badly when they did, and I even resolved never to go back to my favorite restaurant because I claimed the food just didn’t taste as good as it used to.
There were several important takeaways from this experience. 1. Rapid tests are unreliable. 2. I was making a lot of incorrect conclusions based on lack of information THAT I DIDN’T KNOW I was lacking. 3. This experience mirrored what mindfulness teaches us about the thinking mind. (Even when all the senses are intact, it still can make egregious errors.)
Most people never realize that they see world subjectively. We believe that our perception IS always right on target. But Covid helped me see just how wrong this belief can be. The minute a perception enters our brain – it is immediately altered by our hard-wired beliefs and past experiences. In this case, the past experience was Covid.
You’ve no doubt heard the expression: seeing is believing. We all assume that if we see something with our own eyes, that perception is going to be accurate. But studies have shown that mistaken eyewitness testimony accounts for about half of all wrongful convictions in the US. Researchers at Ohio State University determined that roughly 52 percent of the errors resulted from eyewitness mistakes. So apparently, we can’t trust our senses, even when they are all working properly!
Far fewer people have heard this expression: We can only SEE what we already believe. Psychologists call this all-too-common perceptual error, confirmation bias: Confirmation bias is defined as: the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values. In other words, we only SEE what we ALREADY believe. Not knowing I had had Covid, I believed the LACK of information from two of my senses WAS information.
No matter what comes through (or doesn’t come through) your senses, the brain AUTOMATICALLY adds its own perceptual bias on top of this. So for me, after Covid, it meant: I was perceiving the world with a kind of tunnel vision.
We all see what we want to see. That’s confirmation bias. When I didn’t know I had contracted covid I was TRUSTING – like we ALL do – that my senses, were delivering an UNDISTORTED version of reality. But, as I’ve tried to show in this installment, that assumption is rarely the case, even when we are not handicapped by diminished smell and taste.
Unfortunately, a second bout of Covid had even more tricks in store for me. In the next installment I will look at how this played out, and how I had to learn to change my own perception about my lack of perception.