Believing is Seeing

Reading two books in parallel, one upstairs – one down, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood and Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson. They are doing a waltz in my brain.

Hood points out that what we see and understand of the world is not absolute, but our brain's interpretation of what it sees. What's more, the brain can't possibly see everything; it has to be selective. Once it has made its choice, it joins the dots between the pieces of info to produce our impression of our world.

That may be why two people present at the same scene often present completely different pictures. My mother used to say she could hardly believe my father had been on the same holiday with her: she remembered sun, he rain.

In his book, imagineering, Serge King explains how we have to learn to interpret what we see. How from early childhood we are looking to understand our surroundings. We aren't born knowing a floor is a floor or a ceiling a ceiling; we have to work it out in our cribs. Later we draw inferences from others' behavior.

He gives the example, which I have often returned to, of two children who bring mud into the house. Mother gets mad. One child interprets this that mothers don't like mud; the other that mothers get mad. The children are starting on two different trajectories. They will test their theories against subsequent experience, looking for proof that their perception is correct. Gradually they build up very different scenarios. One child is pragmatic and keeps mud outside; the other looks fearfully at his mother, waiting for her anger. And they grow into different people.

I have to wonder what role a sense of humour plays in this. If our brains are selectively building our worlds and from them our sense of self, what a difference it must make to have a keen sense of the ridiculous. On those days, when we ricochet from disaster to disaster, it surely helps to dissolve into helpless laughter. We start collecting the mishaps, piling one upon another, knowing that when things shake back into sanity, it will make a good story. Like my cousin who wryly tells of his sodden British holiday with day after day of grey rain – and he got sunstroke in a traffic jam coming home. Then there is an elderly relative without an atom of humour whose only resource is stoical, glum endurance. A brave, but sour face.

Einstein said that the big question is whether the universe is friendly. And apparently this simple belief is life-saving. If we go through our lives, looking over our shoulders, anxiously waiting for a great paw to crush us, we live much shorter (and more miserable) lives.

If our brains are creating our worlds, then surely we have the possibility of deliberately – slowly, probably, like a ship changing course – choosing what we notice. And from that changed perception, growing our more positive selves.

Positivity tells of research showing that the crucial ratio of positive to negative for mental health is three to one. Which is why actively remembering the good things each day works so well. It doesn't work to Pollyanna one's thoughts. I always feel much worse when I try and force optimism. But I have learned from dealing with pain daily that I can choose where my thoughts go, what I ruminate on.

It was Jill Bolte Taylor in My Stroke of Insight who gave me, like a breath of fresh air, not only the knowledge but somehow the permission, to understand that I stand at crossroads with my reactions. I can decide calmly which path I want to take. Do I want to dwell on this injustice or do I choose to go elsewhere? In pain, do I want to sink among lost dreams or do I choose to dwell in a kinder place? It doesn't mean forcing an attitude, just finally realizing that I (somewhere buried inside) am larger than that misery or hurt. (Link to blog entry on Stroke of Insight)

I think it works as slowly my world view has changed. My childhood question was “Is God cruel?” I was so afraid of the answer and developed rituals to appease this deity. I desparately didn't want to believe the worst, but my earliest experience was of tragedy – and the random way it struck. Every night I said my childish Protestant prayers, which consisted of listing my failings. For years I had a feeling of dread at bedtime from that early conditioning.

Then, one day, I read a simple statement, “God is my best friend.” Wow! What an idea! Hesitantly, like probing a once sore tooth, I tried this new approach, renaming God as Abba in my conversations. And my trust grew, my world changed and with it my reactions, till I approached life openly, expecting kindness from fate, like a puppy that is no longer kicked. I found bounty and a firm foothold. So I do believe that we, up to a point, create our worlds.



About UntraveledRoads

Fascinated by life, looking for answers to chronic pain and finding unexpected gifts. Interested in people, ideas, healing and humour. I am very happily married with three children and a kitten. As English born immigrants to Canada, we have family spread overseas, a daughter in South Africa and one in England. We also run a charity in South Africa to educate black, rural South African Women. Our first girl from a rural township has just graduated as an accountant from Johannesburg University and got a good job in a bank.
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