Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Somewhere in the middle of my teens, I took a ton of philosophy classes, and woven through all of them was a common thread: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The story, written approximately 2,300 years ago, explores perception and though it fascinated my teen self, I never fully understood the importance of perception until the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chained inside Plato’s Cave, its inhabitants are forced to experience a life, a reality, made of nothing but shadows. When Plato’s protagonist escapes, three-dimensional reality throws his perceptions into turmoil. This story crashes into my reality as months of self-isolation pass and I realize that I am trapped in a cave of my own; a cave that encompasses my entire world —not constructed of stone and shadow, but of my perception.

Like me, every human on the planet is trapped in a cave made of our perceptions. And we can never escape our perceptions. But as I face this tumultuous time alongside millions of others, I realize that, now more than ever, we need to learn to challenge and expand our perceptions. And so, over months spent in the solitude of my home, I began writing an essay about the tools that helped me recognize and expand my perception; an essay beginning with curiosity.

3″x3″ painting. Baby Teeth.

A Curious Life

“But how does one keep an imagination fresh in a world that works double-time to suck it away? How does one keep an imagination firing off, when we live in a nation that is constantly vacuuming it from them? The answer is, one must live a curious life. One must have stacks and stacks and stacks of books on the inside of their bodies. And those books don’t have to be the things that you’ve read —that’s good, too, but those books could be the conversations that you’ve had with your friends that are unlike the conversations you were having last week.” —Jason Reynolds, in his On Being interview.

Jason Reynolds spoke these words into my headphones and he reminded me of my child-self who began collecting “books on the inside of [my body]”. I clung to childhood as I saved my baby teeth and lost myself in stories, because deep down I knew that childhood’s unfettered curiosity connected my experience to the world.

I did not want to grow up; childhood created space for my imagination and time to branch as owlets do: hopping from tree branch to tree branch before finally taking wing. And when childhood faded into adolescence, I learned that, as writer and philosopher Rebecca Solnit articulated,

“childhood fades gradually in some ways, never ends in others; adulthood arrives in small, irregular installments if it arrives; and every person is on her own schedule, or rather there is none for the many transitions.”

At 14, long before I read Solnit’s thoughts on childhood, I proposed that if brain development continues well into our adulthood and longevity is increasing, we could also lengthen childhood —at least a couple of extra years. And so as adolescence crashed into early adulthood I tried out my theory, discovering data that, like Solnit’s words, supported my proposition that the years of childhood should be extended.

According to Our World in Data, global longevity has increased from 46 in 1950 to 71 in 2015. We’ve gained 25 years and 25 just happens to be the age that the Teenage Brain authors Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt argue is when “the most important part of the human brain—the place where actions are weighed, situations judged, and decisions made—is right behind the forehead, in the frontal lobes… the last part of the brain to develop.” But 25 is just the beginning, Ned Johnson and William Stixrud, in The Self-Driven Child, wrote that the development of our “emotional control functions follow at around thirty-two.”(6) And maybe this is why more people in my generation, including myself, find it rational to stay home in our childhood homes well into our 30s.

Across the street from my childhood home, my sister, at the tender age of 10, discovered an extinct Eastern Elk skeleton beneath the ice in the lake’s spring melt. My dad’s rigid adult brain saw sticks through the murky water, but the plasticity of my sister’s childhood brain allowed her to see that there could be something more. And there was so much more.

My sister’s curiosity guided us to explore the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History’s musty-mastodon bone-filled basement, to fund carbon dating and DNA testing with a $5,996 Kickstarter campaign, to connect with the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (and to literally dozens of adult experts). In our search to discover the bone’s origins, my sister and I learned that questions lead to answers and answers lead to more questions.

The scientific process relies on these cycles of answers and questions, this doubt-fueled curiosity. “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty —some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.” Physicist Richard P. Feynman described, “in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt”.

If doubt’s combustion propels science forward, mistakes propel our brains to expand. In my experience, learning occurred in a series of experiences, discoveries, and mistakes that shaped my childhood brain. “The times when we are struggling and making mistakes are the best times for brain growth.” wrote(10) mathematician Jo Boaler. “When we are willing to face obstacles and make mistakes in the learning process, we enhance neural connections that expedite and improve the learning experience.”

And in my experience, learning from mistakes requires responding to mistakes with curiosity. Curiosity not trapped in the childhood years of our lives but expanding and evolving just like the scientific process. A curiosity that turns inward to nourish those libraries lining our bodies and outward to explore the world and perceptions surrounding us.

23″x23″ painting. Insides Lined with Books.

Collecting Fragments

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.” Author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “I was made for the library”. I too was made for the library, made for books and the spaces and people and times that books enable us to inhabit; made for libraries where countless stories, concepts, and voices exist at once, waiting for us to bring them to life. 

And each of our perceptions bring reality to life, just as readers have the power to make books come to life in our minds. In the realm of literary theory, this bringing to life, this “meaning”, raises questions: does meaning belong to the author; to the words themselves; or, like Stanley Fish’s reader-centric theory, does the text’s meaning belong to the reader? I think I agree with Fish’s theory and I have a feeling Rebecca Solnit agrees with him too, as Solnit wrote in her memoir: “the words are instructions, the book a kit, the full existence of the book something immaterial, internal, an event rather than an object, and then an influence and a memory. It’s the reader who brings the book to life.”

But when we read, we’re not just reading words, we are reading what is in an author’s mind, we are reading about her beliefs, we are reading about her experiences, we are reading about her perceptions. Reading can peel away the vast divides between human’s perceptions, still writing “something down doesn’t make it true.” As lyrical writer and historian Jill Lepore understands, “the history of truth is lashed to the history of writing like a mast to a sail. To write something down is to make a fossil record of a mind. Stories are full of power and force; they seethe with meaning, with truths and lies, with evasions and honesty.”

And when I was fourteen, I learned that studying history is a process of collecting fragments. Exploring the German politics that lead to WWII and The Holocaust I learned that Hitler’s failed art career preceded his tyranny; learned that Anne Frank’s family was refused asylum in America; learned that Josephine Baker was not just an entertainer, she was an activist and intelligence operative; learned that while my Polish great-grandfather served as a litter barer in France, my pregnant German great-grandmother lived in his family’s home in Chicago. All these stories intercepted and reminded me that history belongs to everyone who experienced it. 

Yet the history we are taught is documented by the few, often all we know of times before us and lives beyond us is filtered through a documenter’s perspectives. And countless perspectives have been lost, like swaths of Ancient Greek poet Sappho’s work. Somehow her poetry found itself transposed on paper but by whose hands, since in Sappho’s time, most women were illiterate. Saphho’s work exists now, only in fragments, in pages harboring only handfuls of words like “right here…(now again)…for ” or a single word “youth”. The lost poetry tells the story of history’s fragility and fragmented nature.

For history to be accurate, history would include every single perspective, each individual’s story in that moment. When interacting with history, we need the ability to recognize all the perceptions —even the ones we don’t see or hear, read or remember. Because for every story we read, there exist a myriad of stories we will never know. Moments belonging to the Annishinaabe peoples, who captured stories on animal hides and wiigwaasabak, birch bark scrolls, who lived and dreamed in the same forest my home rests. And my home is built on land belonging to lives and stories, histories and memories I will never know. Reminding me that history belongs to me only in the moments I inhabit; reminding me that every single life, memory, experience —forgotten or remembered— created this moment in which I write.

And in this moment we must recognize all of the perceptions creating our present. Because our memories are “made up of moments, strung out over months, years, decades” wrote author Rebecca Traister. “[moments] become discernible as movements —are made to look smooth, contiguous, coherent— only after they have made a substantive difference.” And in each of theses moments exists an opportunity to collect fragments of our perceptions and challenge our own versions of history.


Contemplating While Experiencing

In one of my earliest memories, I snuggled for hours on my pregnant mom’s lap while she read aloud —all seven Chronicles of Narnia books— I was barely three-years-old. When I remember those moments, the 17 years between the memory and my present fade until I hear the reverberation of my mom’s voice and the shushing sound of her fingers turning the pages.

I spent my childhood within stories, my imagination catching fire while listening to the murmur of reading voices, feeding my voracious and insatiable love of reading. And all that time away from harsh reality, taught me to appreciate, to lament, and to question the world around me. I learned that books are like time machines, that can create experiences and people and places within the pages and sentences and words, that can create time —a pause— to reflect and wonder all the while lost in another world.

To step into the world created by an author’s brain, we have to trudge through our own perceptions, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning”

The challenge of accepting our perceptions and banishing “preconceptions when we read” suggests that we might need to slow down and trust our brain because “in our brain there are ‘delay neurons’ whose sole function is to slow neuronal transmission” wrote scholar Maryanne Wolf. Perhaps our brain, like Wolf, recognizes that, “in music, in poetry, and in life, the rest, the pause, the slow movements are essential to comprehending the whole.”

In our current technological atmosphere, with the constant onslaught of information bundled into feeds and algorithms, “comprehending the whole” is increasingly difficult. The faster the media, the faster our thoughts, until interaction becomes reaction. But technology also has an antidote: books, as journalist Nicholas Carr understands:

“Despite being surrounded by tens of thousands of books, I don’t remember feeling the anxiety that’s symptomatic of what we today call ‘information overload.’ There was something calming in the reticence of all those books, their willingness to wait years, decades even, for the right reader to come along and pull them from their appointed slots. Take your time, the books whispered to me in their dusty voices. We’re not going anywhere.”

5″x5″ painting. Mental Connections.

Our perceptions, like a book’s patience, aren’t going anywhere and if we are to comprehend the whole we need to pause in order to think, to inquire, to reflect. “Reflection (sometimes called “meta-cognition”) is the moment… where you pause to think about what you’ve learned” explained educator Cathy Davidson.

And we can practice our pausing and meta-cognitive abilities by slowing down the reading process, by deep reading. As journalist Ezra Klein explored, reading “is more associational, is more creative. I’ve come to really honor the idea that what is happening while I read a book is often not about the book, it’s about my interaction with the book.” In the same Podcast Klein also highlighted that Nicholas Carr, “writes about how the connections are the self, the connections we draw are actually our mental landscape. So [deep reading is] really the process of being in [a book] long enough to draw connections.” 

Perhaps we can draw these connections when reading, because we can, as artist and thinker Jenny Odell described, both “contemplate and participate”. In her criticism of the attention economy, How to Do Nothing, Odell explains that “to stand apart is to look at the world (now) from the point of view of the world as it could be (the future), with all of the hope and sorrowful contemplation that entails.”

Essentially, it is books, it is the act of reading that assists us in the contemplation and participation that challenge us to live in multiple times, perspectives, and places at once. Reading can transport us into another person’s experience and invite us to challenge our perceptions (our Platonic caves) not by escaping them, but by simply acknowledging that our perceptions exist. 

55″x55″ painting. World Created by Perceptions.

“the long, hard look”

To the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the outside world does not exist because they do not perceive it. When the protagonist escapes, he is at first overwhelmed by the physical world and then finds comfort in the familiar, in the shadows. It is only with time that his perception adapts to a world where the cave and the outside can exist simultaneously. 

In Ancient Greece Epicurus, the father of Epicureanism and Hedonism, wrote to a person named Menoeceus. In the letter Epicurus fleshed out core elements of Hedonism, so much different then the debauchery we associate with it today. Epicurus wrote that a hedonist, like Plato’s protagonist, “believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool.” And to be cognizant of our own perception, of the perceptions of others, of the discrepancies and similarities between them, is infinitely more rewarding than being unaware.

And we need to be aware, because our perceptions connect and shape the world and the “qualities of the world depend on the perception of the experiencing creature” states a core element of Epicureanism. And the qualities of the world we create and our impending future rely on us; in her speech “Learning from the 60s”, poet and thinker Audre Lorde said, “to refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up.” And to refuse the existence of all the perceptions we don’t comprehend is to give up on the richness of experience.

While writing this essay, and creating “The Introvert in the Widow”, I reviewed the “stacks and stacks and stacks of books on the inside of” my body. Flipping through the pages and memories, I’ve noticed that our perceptions can conglomerate into written and visual documentation, and into scientific processes and mathematical equations. And I learned that with these tools you can, as science historian Helen Macdonald wrote, “attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To rejoice in the complexity of things.”

Writing about perceptions while living though countless crises at once —climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and systemic racism, to name a few— has shown me how perceptions allow us to experience incredible complexity, to feel deep separateness with the world and unshakable commonality, all at once. And that no matter how different our perceptions may be —how different our caves may feel— similarities abound, “technology has changed and culture has changed”, said author and classicist Madeline Miller, “but human beings and the things that we struggle with, the things that we love and fear are all still with us.” 

If we can look behind and beneath and beyond the layers of perception within the world around us, then the awareness of our own perceptions might encourage us to expand into that same world. And this never ending process is an adventure, that continues long after the book, or the story, or the this essay ends. And to begin this process, we have to live into each moment, we have arm ourselves with curiosity, we have to begin with the late Rep. John Lewis’ words: “you [we] have to take the long, hard look”.

Detail of 55″x55″ painting. Perceptions and Plato’s Cave.