“The world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, and almost – one might say – a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its molding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli.” Those words were written by Will Durant (1926) in his book The Story of Philosophy. Similar realizations have been made throughout recorded history, and this principle has only become more verifiable as science has grown and progressed. The mind really does make things “what they are.” Each of us approaches life through our own clouded vision, and this distortion of reality shapes our experiences.

Turnball (1961) talks about what he experienced as an anthropologist the day a pigmy took his first trip out of the dense tropical forest – a place he had lived in for his entire life. Upon stepping out into the open African plains, a herd of buffalo appeared in the distance, and the pigmy asked what kind of insects they were. The anthropologist responded by telling the pigmy that those dots on the horizon were buffalo, but reports “when I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies.” Growing up in a dense rainforest with no views beyond the nearest trees, he simply lacked the proper perspective to understand what he was seeing. Another villager in a completely different part of the world described an airplane as “a house in the shape of a fish flying through the air.” (Larmer, 2008) It’s amazing how two people can look upon the same thing and form two completely different ideas about its meaning.

While few of us would confuse buffalo for insects, we all have numerous ways in which our limited perception deceives our minds about reality. We all look at the world through distorted lenses that bend and twist our experiences worse than a fun-house mirror. The reason psychologists started using inkblots with patients was not because they have a fine appreciation for finger art, but because each person can see the same thing and interpret it in an entirely different manner.

Examples of Perceptual Differences

Human beings tend to be a lot more adaptable than we pretend we are. We can be conditioned to virtually any situation, and have the ability to find just about anything comforting and enjoyable, or uncomfortable and painful, depending on our perception. Let’s take a moment to explore just how varied this perception can be:

Beautiful Disfigurations
In one African tribe, it is tradition to pierce the lower chin just beneath the lip, and to stick a wooden rod through the piercing. When I say rod, I mean it. These things are bigger than broomstick handles. They insert this round, six inch piece of wood into their face wherever they go. Why do they do this? Because it’s attractive . . . Duh! “Anyone without them is ugly,” one child affirms. Children receive their rods as toddlers, gradually having bigger ones inserted into their face as they grow. When you and I see such things, attractive is probably the last word that comes to mind. But because this child had been conditioned to seeing people with poles through their faces, anyone lacking such lumber looked legitimately ugly to her.

Pleasure or Pain?
In many parts of the world, parents and caregivers will routinely stroke or otherwise stimulate a child’s genitals as a means of relaxing them or calming them down. It’s often a normal bedtime routine, similar to the way a parent in this country might rub a child’s back or stroke their cheek. Other parents in other cultures commonly stroke or manipulate a child’s genitals while breastfeeding. If you tried to make the argument that the activity was abusive, they would probably look at you like you were crazy. After all, you don’t hear any complaints from the kids, and as suprising as it may seem to people in our cluture, such youngsters seem to grow up without any problems, becoming happy, healthy adults. (Langfeldt, 1981, p. 43; Freud, 1995)

Salad With A Side of Crickets
How do you like your pasta? Topped with meatballs? Alfredo sauce? Would you like one topped with crickets? How about a salad adorned with larvae? Or here’s a real treat: roasted fire ants. Whether or not your stomach is growling or churning probably depends a lot on where you live and how you were raised. If the thought of eating bugs sounds unpleasant to you, ask yourself: Why? After all, a cricket, cockroach or beetle (all considered delicacies in many parts of the world) are essentially the same thing as shrimp. Perhaps bugs are just too creepy-crawly and alien looking to be appetizing. But then again, how attractive is a lobster? Those buggy eyes, the antenna, the pinchers, the numerous legs…lobster is little more than an oversized bug that lives in the sea. Plus, bugs pack way more protein per pound than beef or chicken, and eating them is actually better for the environment.

The point is, if you’re like most people in the United States, you were utterly repulsed at the thought of eating bugs. Yet that wasn’t because eating a bug is any ickier than eating the other things we eat here, but IT ONLY SEEMS THAT WAY because we were raised with a different perspective. To kids elsewhere, roasted fire ants are a sweet delicacy that they’ll chase after like candy. (Richmond/Walsh, 6-9-08; PBS, 6/14/2009) All around the world, more than 1,400 insect species show up on menus. (NGC, 9-28-08) In China, you’ll find that scorpions and barbecued dragonflies are commonplace. You might also want to stop by a local joint for some donkey penis or brain while you’re there. (Wise, 2008) By the way, if you’re still utterly repulsed by this and snuff up your nose at the idea of eating bugs, we have news for you: you’re eating bugs and don’t even realize it. Most of the food products we consume contain an allowable degree of things such as fly eggs, maggots, or other insect parts. All told, “you’re probably ingesting 1 to 2 pounds of flies, maggots, and mice each year without knowing it.” (Levy, 2009) Yummy.

Wedding Day Jeers
One small Indonesian island culture has an interesting wedding day tradition. They lay a bed of flowers in the chief’s hut, and the entire village gathers around. Kids sit in the front so they’re not having to look over the shoulders of the adults (naturally), and there the new couple copulates together to consummate the marriage. Old and young alike root them on and cheer, giggle, offer helpful (or not so helpful) tips, and crack jokes as they go. And you thought your honeymoon was awkward.

Sex Education Across Cultures

The Ba-ila tribes of Northern Rhodesia regard sex as a natural and sacred part of life. They begin teaching children about it when they are young. Adults will guide children in practicing the different sexual positions and acts, so that when they come of age it’s as natural to them as riding a bike. Kids must be taught how to achieve orgasm and bring others to it as well, which is regarded as a higher level of consciousness and spiritualism – akin to being on a dimension closer to God. So aren’t children traumatized by such disgraceful acts of sexuality? Of course not. To them, it isn’t disgraceful, but part of the natural learning-teaching process between youth and their elders. Because they treat sexual behavior as a natural human behavior it destigmatizes the experience, and thus removes any harm. It also happens to be known as one of the friendliest, happiest, most peaceful tribes around. I guess the old analogy “make love, not war” really does have some truth to it. (Smith & Dale, 1920) Such interactions are not unique to this culture. Around the world, there are at least 15 different cultures which raise their children in a sexually permissive manner. As they grow, children receive sexual learning and experience from their elders the same as they learn about any other aspect of their life. (Ford & Beach, 1951) This isn’t even counting the many more cultures that have far more relaxed attitudes than our own. For example, in some parts of Europe, preschool and early elementary school classrooms often have a secluded area filled with pillows and other soft items designed expressly for the purpose of providing an area where children can explore each other and engage in sexual play.

So aren’t these children traumatized by such contact? Actually, most research seems to indicate just the opposite; that this buffers them against insecurity as teens and leads to better sexually adjusted adults. (Constantine & Martinson, 1981) That’s not to say that such contact is without potential harm or that it’s a good idea in this culture, where different beliefs about such activity can cause a great deal of harm in themselves. But it is meant to illustrate that all of these issues (and the harm they produce) are largely a matter of perception.

Harassment or compliment?

In our culture, when a man whistles at a passing woman it is usually seen as a sexually harassing gesture. In other cultures (or even in our own society thirty or so years ago) this same woman might well take it as a compliment.

Greet you with a kiss
When you meet someone new or say hello to an acquaintance, you probably greet them by shaking hands. If it’s a child you’re greeting, you might give them a hug or plant a kiss on the cheek. But if you’re living in certain parts of India, it would be customary for you to say hello to these kids with a kiss to the genitals. In these regions, proper etiquette calls for the adult to: A) Either pick a child up or kneel down so that their head is at the child’s groin level, B) Expose the child’s genitals (if they’re not nude already); C) Clutch the child’s penis between two fingers, and then D) Kiss it on the head several times in succession. This gesture is considered an act of respect – a way to pay homage to the child’s lineal heritage. (Goodyear-Smith, 1993, pp. 67-68)

Boys receive this honor more often than girls, since the caste system in these parts gives higher status to males than it does to females. Therefore adults belonging to the same caste as the child only pay this gesture towards boys. However, if an adult of a lower caste is greeting a female child belonging to a higher caste, girls receive the same treatment. The man or woman will pull the girl close and plant a number of kisses on her bare vulva.

Such a custom further illustrates the power of perception in maltreatment issues. Kiss a child’s genitals in one part of the world, and the child giggles with glee while feeling honored and respected. Go to another part of the world and change the ideas, and a similar action might be seen as scarring or traumatic. Such evidence seems to show it’s harmful ideas more than specific actions that lead to destructive outcomes.

Soda with a twist
In India, a Hindu Nationalist group is developing a soft drink made from a key ingredient: cow urine. Why, you might ask? For its health benefits, of course. “It has been established that cow urine is capable of curing even cancer, so imagine a drink which would not only be tasty but also healthy,” says one local. (The Week, 2-27-2009, p. 12) I’ll take his word for it, but plenty of others will shell out their hard-earned money for this drink – paying for the privilege of drinking cow urine.

Fear & Exhilaration
I love skydiving. There’s nothing like it. The best part is climbing out of the plane. There you are, 14,000 feet up in the sky, hanging onto a pole on the side of the plane. One foot on, one foot off. The wind rushing at you, the whipping propellers churning just 20 feet in front of you. Then you count to 3, let go, and watch as the plane flies away without you in it. Now that’s a good time. But then again, this might be someone else’s version of a heart-attack inducing trauma.

Medicinal Herbs
Time magazine ran a photo sometime in 2008 of a father blowing poppy smoke into his toddlers face to soothe him while he’s sick. In America, such a thing would get child welfare involved and earn a person prison time, as numerous parents who have let their child have a puff of marijuana smoke have found out. What is an illicit drug to one person is a medicinal herb to others.

Breast Feeding Across Cultures
How long did you or your wife breast feed your child? (Primarily, we mean the wife . . . though crazier things have happened.) How long did your mother breastfeed you? Did you know that in many parts of the world it’s not unusual to see mothers breast feed their children to 5, 6, 7 years of age? Such a thought may seem weird or uncomfortable, because we were raised to look at such things as weird or abnormal. How about a 9-year-old girl who wants to breastfeed with her mother as a birthday present? It may seem awfully weird, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with it. We’ve been trained to equate different with bad, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so. (Tyra Banks, 7-3-08; ABC, 1/2/2009; NBC, 8/6/2008)

Money to the Dogs
How important is your dog? Some people treat their pooch like a child. Dressing it up, eating at the table with it, spending as much money on their dog as they would a child. They may sleep with their pet, give it mouth to tongue kisses, and show other affection that looks a little out of place. We all love our pets, but some people seem to take that love to a new level.

One person bragged about how he would spend $500 to save his dogs life, but wouldn’t spend $20 to save the life of a child. (Wihera, 2/17/2008) Obviously we don’t agree with his priorities, but it’s his money, and he can use it how he so pleases. Leona Helmsley left billions to the dogs, quite literally, choosing to pamper poodles instead of bettering the condition of humanity. Again, while we don’t agree, it’s her money, and everyone has different priorities.

Eating Grandma
In the United States, we show respect to our dead loved ones by having a funeral ceremony and then burying or cremating the dead. In ancient Maya culture, however, as well as many different cultures surviving today, they just have themselves a good barbeque. So what’s on the menu? Pork? Chicken? No, it’s Grandma, and all of her friends and loved ones gather around to have a little feast. Yes, that’s right. They cook up their dead and feast on their flesh. But before you go throw up, this has nothing to do with cannibalism or morbid pleasures. Practitioners believe that by eating and consuming the flesh of their dead loved ones, their spirit forever lives inside of them and becomes intertwined with their own. (NGC, 4-6-2009) I can’t say I find the thought appetizing, but the idea that drives it is actually a little intriguing, and not necessarily any better or worse than any of our own traditions. Those who eat their dead have a hard time understanding why we would be so disrespectful as to bury them in the dirt with the worms and maggots. If we grew-up with such a practice, we might not find the thought upsetting at all.

One Person’s Pleasure, Another’s Pain
There’s a video that was submitted to America’s Funniest Home Videos of a mother and father telling their two children what the sex of their new sibling will be. Upon hearing the news that it’s a girl, the older sibling, a girl, starts raising her hands to the air and thanking God, thrilled that she’s going to have a new sister. The boy starts crying, his face contorted in agony. He is inconsolably upset. The exact same news can be thrilling or agonizing, a gift or a curse, depending on the perspective it’s viewed through.

Doorstep Greetings
Have you a giant painted penis on your front door? If not, then you might not fit in very well in parts of Bhutan, where it’s customary to have such a thing. In the Buddhist religion, which emphasizes kindness towards others and self-fulfillment through enriching the greater good, sexual relations are considered a gateway to enlightenment; a means of pure love and joy that will bring one closer to God. As such, many houses are adorned with an enormous painted phallus which is often wrapped in a bow or otherwise decorated. This and other types of sexual imagery can be seen around Bhutan, and are intended as a means of good cheer and good luck, much in the same manner businesses in this country might paint a smiley face on their door or the slogan “have a nice day.” (Larmer, 2008)

Girls Unwanted
In many parts of the world, boys are valued above girls, who are often considered burdens on the family or in some cases not even fully human. As one author says, “When they are first born, girls can bring tears to the eyes of mothers for not being sons.” (Paxson, 2009) It is such a shame that a culture should warp their perception in such a manner. So much misery and suffering for everyone, so many missed joys in the form of what little girls have to offer, such a waste of the wonders of childhood, for no other reason than a set of twisted beliefs.

Beauty Marks
In areas of Thailand, young girls have rings applied around their neck from toddlerhood, which distorts their development and elongates their neck. It is a painful process that often bruises the child and will leave them crippled later, unable to go without the brace. (NGC, 9-22-08) In many African tribes, it’s customary to scar up a young girls face using a razor blade in order for her to be considered beautiful. (NGC, 9-28-08) Another is documented holding down a naked 2-year-old girl so that she can be cut with a razor blade all over her body as part of an identification ritual. (Discovery, 8/21/09) In yet another, girls gladly take a beating from men for their brother’s rite of passage. When a man comes of age, all his female sisters and cousins, some as young as 9 or 10-years-old, are whipped by other men, leaving permanent scars and painful welts all over the body. The girls endure this while egging the men on and asking them to whip them harder, because the more pronounced scars are a sign of deeper loyalty that the women later wear with pride. (NGC, 6-14-09)

All of these things, painful as they are and brutal as they may seem, are viewed quite differently than we might view them. Because the ideas under which they take place are different, so are the perceptions youngsters internalize about such experiences. Painful as they may be, difficult as they may be, these perceptions separate what is considered abuse from what is regarded as a symbol of pride.

Tasty Treats
In many areas of Africa, the local kids can’t wait to wrap their mouth around a pair of tasty testicles. When they do, they love to gnaw and suckle them like candy. Goat testicles, that is. Raw goat testicles are considered a delicacy in these parts, especially among the children, who are always given first dibs. One Discovery Channel episode of “Tattoo Hunter” captured such a feast on camera, as the children licked, sucked, and chewed the testicles with great pleasure, often with gooey, sticky white slime hanging down their chin or while having to fish stringy parts of the flesh out of their teeth. (Discovery, 8-21-2009) We’re pointedly graphic on purpose, and for this reason: it shows how much of a role perception plays in what we find disgusting or unimaginable to think about. It is not the mechanics of an experience, but how we learn to perceive such experiences, that determine our reactions; both our own and those of our children. Despair resides in our negative thoughts and perceptions, rarely in the experience itself. It’s also another example (as if any more were really needed) for how kids really will put anything in their mouths.

Doing your chores – Dinka style
In the Dinka tribes of Africa, small boys have a rather peculiar chore that many in the Western world might find shocking: They are in charge of stimulating the sexual organs of female cows in order to get them to lactate. One little boy, probably around 8 or 9 years old, happily demonstrated this task in front of cameras for the National Geographic Channel. The process involves sticking his fingers inside the cow’s vagina and stroking in and out while sucking on the outer sex organs and smacking the vulva with his lips and rubbing with his free hand. (NGC, 10-5-2009) No one among the tribes considers this bestiality, since there’s a purpose behind the behavior other than sex: the cows deliver more milk. And it’s also good training: Boys get plenty of practice stimulating female organs; a skill they can carry over to their human partners (which is why the boys are in charge of doing it). One other interesting custom to report: these tribes consider it cleansing to bathe in cow urine. Don’t you?

* * *

“Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their
form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it
reflects the things portrayed.”

-Daniel Gilbert (2006, p. 85)