I Can Only See What I Can See

This short essay provides real life examples of some of the principles of Maturana and Varela’s work. A biological perspective is available in the essay “Biological Filtering”.

What may seem to be an obvious title, is not that obvious when applied to daily life. Lets take a stereotyped example of an architect and a doctor. They both walk into a newly built room, they see the room and its contents. The medical doctor will not see what the architect sees in terms of structure and design. Why do they see different things? This answer is obvious you may say. If we continue with this example we could assume that the architect would be able to see structure, wall shapes and angles, interior finishings and materials to a further degree than the doctor. If the room is now changed to an intensive care unit in a hospital, the doctor would see far more in terms of the contents than the architect. The patients who are lying in the beds and the medical equipment that is connected to the patient is common to the doctor. The doctor can see and know all these things. He can see more than what is visibly available to the naked eye, for example, the doctor has experiential knowledge of the human body and thus not only sees the patients, but also additional to what is on the surface. The same applies to the architect in terms of the building structure, the architect can see further than just the face of the structure. He sees through the walls, he sees into the structures that are based on the architect’s prior learning. To expand this further, have you ever tried to read a foreign language? The words or symbols don’t make any sense, its like seeing a scribble. Now as you learn what the symbols indicate, suddenly awareness is gained and certain symbols now stand out to you. Thus, awareness arises with learning. The learning is stored in our brains and awareness is like seeing something that is mirrored internally in our brain, similarly to playing a card game called snap whereby you shout when two matching cards are drawn. Thus, the awareness of something that is mirrored internally can be called a “perceptual snap”. [The way things are stored and the awareness process raises many questions to which are out of the scope of this essay.]

Learning requires attention. Learning takes time and can be compared to growth. Our brains consist of billions of neural links. These links grow as learning takes place. Growth takes time, thus learning too takes time. It is estimated that neural pathways take about four days to form together. Thus, the architect has developed an understanding of his environment in terms of structure and style which is allowed for by his/her neurology that has been created and continues to evolve over his learning life time. The same is true for the doctor, further knowledge and understanding is built onto what is already present and thus it makes sense that someone studying medicine cant start his filed of speciality before completing his undergraduate course. How do you learn about say cardiology when a medical base of the body has not first been studied?
This is logical, now how does all of this apply to everyday life and relationships?

Lets start with some basic everyday examples.

You cant “see” what you don’t know:
You are driving and your car gets stuck. You see steam coming from the engine so you open the bonnet. You don’t have any mechanics experience and only see and engine and smoke with some car structure surrounding the engine. When the mechanic looks at it, he will not only see the engine, he will see the parts, as well as the relationship between these parts. Thus, not only does he know the visual look of the individual parts, he knows the behaviour of the parts and from that can hopefully solve the problem of the car not functioning correctly [1]. The mechanic has some expectation regarding how the parts should work and from that point can start to solve the problem. The mechanic too has certain expectations regarding the car, for example if it is an engine that he is not familiar with, and he does not at first glance identify all the parts, he soon will as from past experience determine what and where the parts of this engine will do and be. Thus, his past experience will shape his future behaviour to some degree (and this can be argued as to how much of past learning effects future behaviour. Some say future behaviour is 100% determined by past learning and more about this in the essay “The past and the future past”). It is also common for a mechanic to make a mistake in how he fixes the engine as the problem symptoms led him to conclude that he needed to change a certain part when it was not that part. Thus, you bring the car back as the fault re-occurs and the mechanic will now have “see” something else or he wont be able to fix the engine. Thus, either he initially on his first attempt made a mistake and he now becomes aware of it on his second attempt, or he genuinely does not know of this fault and now learns how to deal with it. This requires new learning and a new experience will take place including new neural pathways associated with this learning. A change was required as if the mechanic kept seeing the same symptoms, then he could not generate a new solution, he had to change his view in order to “see” a new solution.

What happens if the mechanic cant “see” the engine and its symptoms differently on his second attempt at fixing your car? Well, it is likely that he wont be able to solve that problem and you will be trying a new mechanic soon. Thus, he cant see what he cant see. Equally true, he cant see what he does not understand. I use the word “see” to indicate some understanding of what is observed. This is obviously not confined to mechanics and applies to any situation that requires a different view of the environment. This is particularly true of relationships which will be discussed in case examples shortly.

Ignorance is bliss:
Have you ever found yourself in a situation whereby you thought you were safe. You thought that the environment was predictable and that there was minimal danger that could effect you? You then found out that the same environment that you thought you were safe in, was in fact not safe for other people. You were then told horrific stories about other people’s traumatic incidents, say for example criminal activity. You question yourself and think, yes but their situation is different to mine and thus I am not in the same boat. This is often termed the “Just world hypothesis” whereby we think in a way that allows us to continue to feel safe and predict our environments. Some time later you are now the victim of say a housebreaking or some other crime like an assault. Suddenly your arousal and awareness of your environment changes.

This is a common situation with many families who live in areas where they thought were safe, only to find that this was a myth. Equally true is where people have made their house safe by installing alarms, or burglar proofing and gates etc, only to find that we don’t think like criminals and in actual fact your house was not safe at all. Once that innocence of safety is removed, its gone as we have now learned more about our environment and is a part of our consciousness. Thus, in order for us to un-learn this, we would have to see a change in the environment which disproves our new view.

After traumatic incidents such as violent crime, survivors are constantly aware of their surroundings and see things they never used to see. They hear things they never heard before and respond to things they never responded to before, why? This is likely because they have gained new information about their world that they previously did not know, or did not believe, or did not think applied to them. Thus, a change occurs in the thinking and behaviour of this survivor. They may even become exhausted as their perceptual awareness is so high that they have no more energy left from lack of sleep. Reflecting back before the incident, the survivor is often shocked and cant believe that they were not aware of what they are now aware of. Suddenly they see new things, they hear new things and the think new things.
It is common for us to have heard the advice but until we live it we don’t fully grasp what this advice means.

A couple who keep arguing:
The wife says to the husband “I wish you could see things from my side!”. From a post-modernist perspective it will never be possible to see things from her side unless he was her, he lived her life, spoke her language and so on. The husband wishes that his wife could see it from his side. Also not possible. The best is to try see it by understanding the context too. The point is that neither will even get close to seeing things from the other’s perspective if firstly they are not open to seeing it. They firstly have to be able to have the ability to “see”. Thus, they need to have some understanding of what and where the other party is coming from. The other problem is that we see things through our own eyes. Many problems arise from that very line. Do we all have the same visual perceptual apparatus? A medical doctor may argue that yes they are very similar. This is true, our biological are similar from person to person. If it is similar then surely we should see similar things? This is not the case. The visual information that is brought into the brain via the eyes is processed by certain areas of the brain. These areas are effected by emotion and affect, beliefs, tiredness or alertness, past learning and many more factors. Thus, while the actual images seen at the retina may match to a large degree from person to person (assuming no eye disorders), the processing of this information is wholly different. For example, earlier I stated that past experience effects what we see. Take for example an electronic device. If you have no knowledge of electronics and you open up your computer you may not see things that are in effect right in front of your eyes. After someone shows you or explains the parts to you, they suddenly become visible. You may argue this and say that you can see all the parts even though you don’t know their function. This may be true and people can describe what they see even if they don’t know its function. They see wires and microchips and so on. But do you know what you see? How full is that picture. What information do you add to the parts that you see? What comes to mind when you do see these parts? Is it different from someone else’s picture? If so how can we be seeing the same picture?
Back to the couple. The wife needs to have the capacity to start to see what the husband is seeing and visa versa. This capacity rests on each parties ability to change. If you would like to see something differently, one way is to ask the thing you are looking at, to change. That is the hard way. Another way is to change yourself [more about change in the essay “I wish things could be different”]. In order for each party to see more clearly the other’s perspective, some change is required from both sides. Firstly if neither are willing to change, no change in perspectives can occur and the situation remains without a solution. If only one party changes, they will start to see a difference in the other party. Capacity refers also to the ability to want to learn. Learning takes time and effort. Unresolved arguments are time-consuming and energy-draining. It is unreasonable to expect someone to see things exactly how you see the world. Our view of the world is made up of so many parts—language, history, a lived experience. It is up to us to create a picture that the other party can understand, which too is not easy.
Another challenge to this couple is that we also see what we want to see. Or we see what we know. A common statement in relationships is “I know”. Now in an argument the phrase “I know” may be problematic. Yes surely there are parts of the argument that for practical purposes you are familiar with, but then why are you arguing. Do you want to obtain a solution? Surely, so then is it possible that the “I know” can be replaced with “I thought I knew”. A change in position from a knowing to a not-knowing stance (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992). When looking at the world through eyes that don’t have all the answers, eyes that are open to seeing, rather than from a position of “I know”, new awareness is gained. The same applies for the earlier example with the mechanic, he saw a problem that was not the problem. In effect, he put a solution onto the car. This solution was not correct. In order for a better solution to be applied, new learning was required, said a different way, a change was required.


Anderson, H., & Goolishian, H. (1992). The client is the expert: A not-knowing approach to therapy.    In McName, S., & Gergen, K.J. (Eds.) Therapy as social construction (pp25-39). London: Sage.

Maturana, H.R., & Varela, F.R. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge. The biological roots of human understanding. (Revised Ed). Shambhala Publications. Boston. MA.

Written by
P. Baron (June 2009)






[1] Is it possible for something to not function correctly? What may seem to be an ambiguous question can be explained technically as follows: If we analyse the part that is said to be functioning incorrectly—or faulty, we quickly determine what is making this problem occur. For example, in terms of the car example, the engine stops and when we find which part that needs to be serviced or replaced, then we say that part is faulty. In actual fact the part behaves in the way it should, for example a bearing fails after much use and when it does fail it was due to its own nature. The material of the bearing has a limit to how much friction it can handle until it’s structure becomes deformed. Even if the bearing failed earlier than it should have, we can look into its physical structure and see that there may have been manufacturing fault for example. In such case, if the bearing fails it is correct as it was not made correctly. For practical purposes we say the bearing was faulty, but looking deeper we see that there is more to that story. The bearing shows us a different story. The bearing is correct to fail as it was not made properly.