Thoughts about perceptions, imagination and communication inspired by Stumbling on happiness

Photo by krossbow

A few days ago I wrote about Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert and how revealing it is with regards to the fallibility of the human mind. One side effect of Gilbert’s delving into happiness is a long discussion about how we perceive others and the “filling in” processes that we automatically do whenever we imagine a situation. In other words, people perceptions are not equal reality. Or as Gilberts puts it:

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

The problem is that people actions are based on these imperfect perceptions of reality and not on reality itself. Or in other words:

Objective stimuli in the world create subjective stimuli in the mind, and it is these subjective stimuli to which people react.

This, as Gilbert explains, is a result of the fact that we are usually unaware that our brain is actively changing our perceptions, replacing missing pieces with assumptions and deductions. In other words, when we encounter a situation, there is a lot we don’t know about it. And instead of realizing that, our brains just make up for what we don’t know. This is a mistake, as Gilbert skillfully explains:

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts.

As Gilbert stresses in his book, awareness in not a good enough cure for this mistake, as people make it even when they are aware that they are going to make it. Although I guess it is a good starting point. When awareness can’t do, we have to move to habits and processes that alow us to overcome our mind’s fallibility. As I also wrote a few days ago, one possible solution to this issue might be found in active listening, where you listen WITH the other person. This means you ignore your own thoughts and concentrate fully on understanding the point of view of the person you are communicating with in order to reduce the possibility of your brain needing to fill in blanks.



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