Saturday, October 6, 2012

Perception and Automatic Thoughts

Understanding the limits of human perception is an essential ingredient to good mental health and good communication skills.  Take any decent Psych 101 course and you will see just how limited our perceptual skills can be.  Long ago, during a lecture, I held up a plain sheet of yellow paper.  The yellow color could be described, in objective fashion, by its emitted wavelength and that would probably be well beyond dispute.  But that did not interest me.  I asked the audience to write down what they saw and any thoughts or feelings which arose from the "stimulus", the yellow paper.  There were, quite literally, as many perceptions as there were people in the room, though of course everyone "saw" the exact same thing.

How much more complex, then, are the other things we all experience in the course of our lives?  Yet all of us, often beyond our awareness, form impressions and interpretations of very complex information, and this in turn often leads to choices and actions which impact our lives and the lives of others.  Some of these make us happy, and some definitely do not.  By the time we reach early adolescence this dynamic has become like a reflex; it is lightning quick and automatic.  It is also dangerous.  You know what "they" say about assumptions.  "They" are correct.

The scale of this pattern of human behavior is enormous.  In a recent article, psychologist Jonathan Haidt discussed the science behind political and religious polarization in America, which has led to and may well lead to a great many more social conflicts and problems.  This polarization is partly borne of reflexive assumptions and automatic thoughts.  We would all do well to slow down, understand that we may be making attribution errors, and actively seek disconfirming evidence for our interpretations.  This is admittedly a difficult thing to do, given our well-researched human nature in this area.

But try we must, if we hope to have sound emotional health and positive relationships.  The recipe is actually quite simple.  Question what you think you see and understand.  Take your time, as very few things in life require instantaneous responding.  If you experience strong emotion, wait until the immediate feelings subside a little before you do the cognitive work of analyzing information.  This gives our higher cortex a chance to do its magic instead of our being controlled by the more primitive, reptilian portions of the brain.  Check out your understanding by getting feedback from others.  The payoff is tremendous: often we learn that what we thought we understood was WAY off.  Have you ever fired off an email or text and immediately wished you could suck it back through the electronic ether?  Then you know what I am talking about.

So really, it comes down to humility.  Knowing that we have a limited range of perception means knowing that we are often capable of being wrong.  It helps us exercise caution in forming conclusions about ourselves and others and the world around us.  Benefits of this practice are improved mood and self-esteem, and improved relating with individuals, groups, and cultures.  That makes it very worthwhile.