Seeing What We Want to See

To a large extent, we all shape our own experiences of reality: We see the things we want to see and block out the things that do not fit our world view.

Walking home yesterday afternoon, I was amused to notice how much I tend to do this even when it comes to bicycles.

Both Vienna and Boston are full of generic modern unremarkable bikes, yet the ones I pay attention to are the classic and vintage bikes.

And since I notice these more, in my subsequent memories they are the ones that play a starring role in the city's "velo life".

In a similar fashion, I tend to pay lots of attention to architecture I like and ignore all the "ugly" stuff right next to it. As a result, a city or a neighborhood might consist entirely of beautiful architecture in my memories.

There are countless examples of this of course, and unless we point and shoot in a random direction we cannot take a picture without revealing our subjective biases. Our pictures reflect how we want to see and remember things rather than how they actually are. For example, several readers have pointed out to me that my "street scenes" tend to be miraculously free of cars, and indeed I seem to frame photos so as to avoid them. There is just something about modern cars that is not photogenic: they detract from the feel of the city landscape.

Bicycles, on the other hand, seem to enrich it - especially when the bicycles are nice and the cyclists are well dressed. Yes, that is a Hassidic Jew cycling through Vienna - who clearly has no problem cycling in a suit.

And here is a couple, cycling into the sunset idyllically. While of course I did not stage these scenes, you could say that I chose to notice them out of the many alternative scenes I could have noticed instead.

So, what is my point? Only that life can be filled with golden sunsets and lovely bicycles if we want it to - even on those days when it's not.


  1. You reminded me of a discussion I saw somewhere recently where someone had made a comment that there was a distinct lack of design in modern cars, as cars just weren't aesthetically appealing anymore - and someone else made the comment that, indeed there was very intentional design going on, but that in general it wasn't to be pretty, it was to be intimidating.

    In a fight for our lives on the streets, we're migrating design to frighten off those who could harm us.

    I agree with you, I would much rather see and remember streets filled with *people*, blocks of buildings that look like someone cared about designing them, and in general, objects that look as though an individual person put something of themselves in designing and making them.

  2. I like your version of reality very much.

    And I agree with portlandize - intimidation rather than loveliness does seem to be our design zeitgeist these days. But what has changed can change again, right?

    Emma J

  3. what i find interesting is not so much that this phenomenon occurs, but the question of how we arrive at the patterns of choice that we make when we see our world. it's obvious that we filter elements of our visual world and choose to integrate some while discarding others, and this largely forms what could loosely be called our "aesthetic sensibilities". but the question of *how* we arrive at those sensibilities is what fascinates me: the developmental psychology perspective, the *ontogeny* of aesthetic sensibility. how are these sensibilities influenced? at what age do patterns start to form (do young children literally take in and integrate everything?) do our integration patterns become permanent? are they fluid as we age? what experiences influence the fluidity?

    if i could switch careers i think these are the questions i would ask, as i find these much more fascinating than my current field of inquiry.

  4. I love this site soo much. Thank you Veloria. This is one of my "golden sunset" sites. Oh, & to the lovely people that enrich it with their comments as well. It all makes for a great "little vacation" while at my desk.

  5. Thanks so much for your kind words Ana, and I am all for "vacations while at my desk".

    somervillain - I am preparing lecture notes on cognitive schemata, so this stuff has been on my mind : )

  6. Lovely "random" pics. I do notice bikes in everyday life much easier than other people do, just because I like them. Ignoring the ugly parts is possible to a certain extend. Interesting and understandable that you don't seem to capture cars so much. I think I have a built-in mechanism to blank them out as much as possible :).

  7. Anna - Oh I definitely notice bikes more in everyday life, much to the amusement of my friends, who will patiently stand there as I pause and back-step to examine bikes up close.

  8. For me, remembering that which is beautiful or simply has character is a survival mechanism. It's a bit like finding friends in a hostile environment or in a time or place in which you're not happy. Those things keep us alive in the same way as dreams. And that is what bikes and bicycling have done for me, in bad as well as good times.

    Our souls need beauty in the same way that our bodies need nutrition. So, "filtering" out the ugly or the boring is, to me, no different from keeping myself from consuming poison.


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