Photo: Daniel J. Simons / Youtube
I've always been fascinated by the human mind.
I can recall a psychology class from university when we were shown a short video of people throwing basketballs. We were asked to count how many passes the participants in white shirts made.
If you've never done this, watch the Selective Attention Test video before reading the spoiler in the next paragraph.
When it ended, instead of being asked for our answers, the prof wanted to know if we had noticed the person in the gorilla suit.
I had no idea what he was talking about until he showed the video a second time. Sure enough, a person dressed as an ape walked through the shot. I was so busy counting that I didn’t even see it.
This is a great example of how your brain deals with the myriad of signals it receives from your senses. There are simply too many to process, so you need a filtration system.
How does your brain choose what to send to your conscious mind and what to store in your subconscious? It uses your beliefs, experiences, and current focus to decide which things are most important for you to be aware of.
You will undoubtedly have experienced this phenomenon, although you may not have realized what was happening.
- You decide to buy a specific car and suddenly you notice they're everywhere.
- You choose an unusual name for your child, only to discover several other children with the same name.
- You book a holiday to Mexico and then everyone you talk to seems to being going to the same place.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I began to think something weird had happened. Everywhere I looked there were baby bumps and infants. I’d never noticed them before because I wasn’t consciously thinking about babies.
Your brain doesn’t just collect and filter the messages it receives, it also interprets them.
A tingling in your stomach could be illness, nerves, fear, excitement, or hunger. Without consulting you, your brain uses your past experiences, current focus, values, beliefs, and everything it knows about you, to create what it believes is the best explanation for those tingles.
The meaning it attaches is rarely the only way you could translate the sensation. It might not even be the right way.
Often feeling thirsty or bored is misinterpreted as hunger. If you are being careful of your calorie intake, you may learn to question hunger pangs before you reach for food.
If you believe your co-worker is horrible, anything they do will be interpreted in a negative light. If you love them, the translations will be positive.
This helps to explain why two people who’ve had the same experience remember it so differently. No two minds are likely to filter and interpret signals exactly the same way.
This is valuable information if you want to have more control over how you view your life.
Just because you don’t see something, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Your eyes see many things that your brain chooses not to share with you.
You don’t have to accept the first interpretation your mind sends you. There is no guarantee it is the right or only way to see things. You get to choose whether to accept or reject your initial thoughts and reactions. If it doesn’t make you happy, try looking for an alternate explanation.
You may never know why something happened the way it did, or why another person reacted to you in a certain way. Consciously decide to give them the benefit of the doubt or choose a viewpoint that gives you peace.
Imagine you see someone crying? Rather than assuming you know the reason for their tears, take a minute and think of all the reasons that could explain them.
Some questions you might want to ask yourself include:
- Are they happy tears or sad ones?
- Does ugly crying mean grievance?
- If they explain why they’re crying, will they always tell you the truth?
- Is it possible to cry without understanding why?
Your initial interpretation of the situation is likely to tie in with your own emotions, beliefs, and recent experiences. If you’ve just had an argument with your partner, you are more likely to see the tears as arising from negative emotions.
Start to notice your reactions to other people, and situations. If you don’t like the emotions that arise, see if you can change your perspective. Choose a different interpretation.
The brain is an amazing and often mysterious entity. The more you understand it, the easier it is to choose a viewpoint that supports happiness.