Have you ever listened to two politicians debating about the same issue and wondered how on earth they managed to arrive at such different opinions and conclusions from the same facts?
Have you ever been to a sporting event and raved over your favorite player only for an accompanying friend to look at you blankly and declare they were unimpressed?
Have you known anybody that has been through really tough times and never stopped smiling and looking on the bright side? Whereas somebody else you knew in the same situation was a prophet of doom and gloom?
What’s going on here, surely facts are facts? Isn’t it obvious when somebody has excelled? And why would anybody feel good when things are so bad, that’s just insane, right?
If you have a belief that the way you see things is the way they are, you are not only wrong, but will severely impede your chance of becoming the person you want to be. In actuality you see things the way you think they are according to your map of reality. And by the way, you are the only person holding that map.
You and in particular your unconscious mind do not like to be wrong. In fact your unconscious hates it with a passion. So much so in fact, that it will do almost anything to avoid those uncomfortable feelings, including fooling you. That’s right, your very own brain is constantly fooling you.
When you gather external data using your representational systems, and by that I mean things you see, hear, feel, taste and smell. Your unconscious mind goes to work deleting, distorting and generalizing the information to help it fit your map of reality and to stop it from becoming overwhelmed.
This is perfectly normal and indeed we all have to do this otherwise we would struggle to get through the day without having a nervous breakdown.
When you see a door handle you want to be able to generalize that it works the same way as all door handles. It would be a tad inconvenient if all door handles looked identical, but some had to be lifted up, some pushed, some slid to one side and some worked on voice recognition.
Similarly when you see a creature bound towards you it’s useful to know it’s a friendly cat because you have seen a cat before, and not have to pull out your ‘Morons Guide to Creatures That May Want To Eat Me’ to know if you need to head for the hills.
On the other hand, when we make generalizations like British people have bad teeth, there is nothing worth watching on TV these days, sports people make too much money, old people are always grumpy and women with PMS should always be avoided, we are in danger of taking it too far.
It only needs one exception for the above to be untrue and the generalization to be inaccurate. Although one of the above may indeed be true and I’ll leave you to decide which.
Whilst your unconscious is making all these useful and sometimes irrational generalizations, it is also deleting information. Your pre-frontal cortex isn’t very good at storing huge amounts of information at a time. It runs out of RAM fairly quickly so has to dump information that it does see as being crucial, and that starts to happen round about five pieces and max’s out at around eight or nine.
Think of all the things that are going on around you right now; All the information that is being thrown at your senses at this one point in time. It is amazing how much of it you’re missing.
The air on your skin, the touch of your clothing, background noises you have filtered out like the sound of your own breathing, maybe the noise of the A/C or a heater. Visually speaking, you are seeing very little of what is in your peripheral field, you are focused on reading this and blanking most other things out. It would be very hard to concentrate otherwise.
Your unconscious is not finished there either. Not content with deleting and generalizing, it is now distorting information for you, the little scamp.
Have you ever had a false memory? Of course you have, everybody has (and yes, that is a generalization! Well spotted.). In fact you will be holding lots of them as you read this and again it is not a problem and very normal. It’s because your mind constructs memories rather then reconstructs them as you would think. It has to, because otherwise every memory would take as long to recreate as the actual event it is recreating.
So the brain retains crucial bits of information and lets you fill in all the blanks. As such, you frequently make mistakes. We’ve all had moments of absolute certainty and clarity about an event only to come across incontrovertible proof that demonstrates we got it completely wrong. It can be a sobering experience, especially when it involves the mother-in-law, two bottles of wine and 3.00am phone call.
It can also distort in other ways too. You can and will see things that you want or expect to see rather than what is actually there.
One of my hero’s is a guy called Derren Brown. Derren is a brilliant illusionist, magician, hypnotherapist and NLP guy. He’s also highly amusing in my opinion and I recommend you checking out his DVD’s.
During one episode for TV he was on a high street holding a map looking like a lost tourist. He would stop somebody and ask for help in finding his way. As the two people studied the map, two guys carrying a large picture of Derren would barge between him and his Good Samaritan. As Derren and his ’mark’ momentarily lost sight of each other, Derren would walk with the removal people behind the picture and hand off the map to a person that was previously obscured.
When the helper was suddenly able to see ‘Derren’ again a second or two later it was a completely different person holding the map.
You wouldn’t expect anybody would fall for such an obvious trick and you would be completely wrong. Now to be fair, I feel sure few people did spot the switch and that was edited out for TV, but many people were conclusively fooled. In fact, the switch got more and more outrageous and the last couple will have you shaking your head in disbelief. (Youtube Video)
These people were not duped because they are any more stupid than you or I. In fact we may very well have reacted the same way. Their brain simply adapted what it saw to fit what it expected to see, because that is what it is does best.
There’s no way round any of this, it’s one of the things that makes life so intriguing. However, if you can stay aware that your opinions may well be wrong even when you just ‘know’ they are right, that what you are seeing may not necessarily what other people are seeing and that some British people have good teeth, you’ll make life a whole lot easier on yourself.