Our brains often interpret reality in distorted ways, turning neutral events into negative ones. Our brains FAIL us in four ways:
Filtering - We select what to pay attention to and ignore details that seem irrelevant to the situation at hand.
Assuming - We generate stories about why something happened or why someone behaved in a particular way.
Inferring - We try to predict what will happen in the future, taking us out of the“now” and locating us in a brain-generated future that has not happened.
Labelling - We create name tags for things by generalizing and simplifying that thing.
[This article was originally published on Medium by Mind Cafe.]
Across a vast array of literary canons, many great thinkers have reminded us that our brains often interpret reality in distorted ways, turning neutral events into negative ones. There’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet who says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Then there’s Milton who writes in Paradise Lost that “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
This reminder isn’t just found in literary canons, it’s also found in both Eastern and Western philosophical texts, with the Buddha saying that “Our life is the creation of our mind” and Epictetus saying that “What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them.”
The key insight of all these great thinkers, writing years before the advent of modern psychology, is that the limitations of the human mind prevent us from fully understanding the complex world around us. To interpret the things, people, events, and situations in our lives, our brains rely on shortcuts and cues. Since our eyes, ears, and brains can take in sensory information in different ways, we may experience this “objective” reality in many different ways.
Look at the picture below. Do you see a duck or a rabbit? This drawing is generated by a set of black lines arranged in a particular way on a blank space, but this set of black lines can be interpreted by people in different ways.
Listen to this audio clip. Do you hear “Yanny” or “Laurel”? There’s only one set of pressure waves generating this sound, but people hear these waves in different ways.
These illusions happen not just with our ears and eyes, but also with our emotions. It’s 5.45 pm on Friday and a client adds 5 more urgent tasks to your to-do list. You originally planned to stop work by 6 pm to go to a spin class, but now you’re going to need to change your plans. One natural reaction might be: “This is so unfair! Why are they loading this on me now? I’m not going to get this done by midnight!” Another reaction might be: “Wow, it’s going to be a busy evening. They sure trust me with this project. Let me start with the most important tasks first!” Same event, different stories, two sets of emotions.
How does this happen? If there can only be one “objective” reality out there, how can our minds tell so many different versions of that reality? Why are some of these versions negative, resulting in despair and anxiety, and others positive, resulting in bursts of elevated high?
To make sense of the world and the events in our lives, our brains FILTER, ASSUME, INFER, and LABEL. In short, our brains often FAIL us in our endeavors to see The Truth. It’s as though our brains are bad journalists publishing their own stories, feeding us fake news about our own lives.
To interpret the world, the first shortcut our brains use is filtering. This happens when our brains select what to pay attention to and ignore details that are irrelevant to the situation at hand.
Filtering is a handy trick most of the time. For example, when you are crossing a busy street, you are more likely to pay attention to the sounds of horns and sirens rather than the chirping of birds — the former helps you get across the road safely, the latter may distract you instead.
But filtering can make us focus on negative signals and push out positive ones. Negative filtering happens when you focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. Discounting positives happens when you claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial, encouraging yourself to maintain a negative judgment about yourself and the things you do.
Recently, a paper that I had written got rejected from a journal. It was its ninth rejection. As I read the rejection email, my brain’s filtering process was immediately triggered. All I could think about was the phrase “I’m sorry to inform you that your submission has not been accepted.” My brain engaged in negative filtering: I completely dismissed the editor’s words of encouragement and positive feedback, which came later on in the email. My brain also discounted other related positive signals: all the other journals that have accepted my work in the past were inferior compared to the journal that rejected me.
How do we catch ourselves before we filter more? The first step is to remind ourselves that we don’t have the full story. We only have bits of information, yet we often think we have the full picture. The second step is to ask yourself “What am I missing?”, “What am I failing to see?”, or “What am I choosing not to see?” I’m missing information about how many submissions the editor received. I don’t know how I ranked compared to all the other submissions — my article could have been on the margin of being accepted. I don’t know whether the editor was having a bad day. I’m also choosing not to see what I’ve learned from writing that article. Get creative with your answers. The list is often longer than you might think.
The second thing our brains do is make assumptions. Our brains generate stories about why something happened or why someone behaved in a particular way.
Assumptions can be helpful at times because it saves us time from having to work from first principles or learn from scratch. For example, we use certain nonverbal behaviors to give us clues about what someone is thinking. When someone sheds a tear, we assume that they are upset or need consoling. When someone smirks, we assume that they find something amusing (maybe about us).
But assumptions can be dangerous because they are not The Truth, it’s what our brains think is the truth. One common type of assumption-making is mind reading. When we do this, we act as though we know what other people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. We act like mind-readers when none of us have the ability to read minds. If we engage in this act of supposed mind-reading habitually and negatively, this will lead to despair, anxiety, and possibly a network of damaged relationships.
On the same day that I received the rejection email, a friend of mine who had recently moved countries canceled on our virtual drinks evening. Receiving her message of “So sorry, too busy to make it this evening, can we reschedule?” tipped my brain into its assumption-generating cycle. “She probably doesn’t value our friendship that much.” “She doesn’t really understand me.” I definitely cannot read my friend’s mind but that didn’t stop me from engaging in mind-reading and making assumptions about why she canceled.
To catch your brain in its assumption-generating cycle, the first step is to pay attention to the words it’s using to describe other people’s behavior or the situation you’re facing. How often do you use verbs that describe perceiving something as true, such as “I saw”, “I hear”, “I was informed”? Or do you use words that describe assumptions about The Truth, such as “I guess”, “I feel”, “I assume”, “I think”?
If you catch yourself using the latter set of phrases, the second step is to stop your journalist-brain mid-sentence and ask: “Is it true?” and “What evidence do I have for this assumption?” No, I didn’t have any evidence that my friend doesn’t value our friendship. In fact, everything she does for me points in the opposite direction. No, I didn’t have any evidence that she doesn’t understand me. It’s precisely that she understands me that talking to her means so much to me. My assumptions couldn’t be further from The Truth. She was probably just busy with work while juggling a trans-atlantic move. Yet, that bad journalist-brain tried to convince me otherwise.
The third thing our brains do is infer what will happen. Our brains engage in the pseudo-science of crystal-ball gazing to predict what will happen in the future.
Inferring can be helpful because it allows our brains to look out for future opportunities and protect us from future threats.
But inferring and projecting can be harmful because it takes us out of the “now” and locates us in a brain-generated future that has not happened. This can lead to anxiety, unease, worry, nervousness, and is the source of psychological fear. One particular sinister form of inferring is catastrophizing. This happens when we exaggerate the importance of insignificant events, assuming that the worst will happen as a result of them. But these predictions are nothing more than brain-generated future possibilities. They have not happened. It’s not even obvious that any of it will happen.
After my friend canceled on me, my journalist-brain started catastrophizing, telling me that our friendship is not going to survive this long distance. “Our friendship is going to end. I’m going to lose my friend.” I focused on the worst possible outcome and saw it as the most likely when in fact no events of that kind have happened and there is no indication that such events are likely to happen.
To catch your brain in its inferring cycle, the first step is to listen to whether it’s using the future rather than the present tense. My thoughts were ridden with this: “Our friendship is going to disappear.” Next, ask yourself “Will it really happen?” and “What evidence do I have that shows that this will happen?” If the answer to the latter is “none”, then revert to the present tense. “She is too busy to make it this evening.” Full stop. No more, no less.
The fourth thing our brains do is label. We create name tags for things by generalizing and simplifying that thing. We classify them by the uses we have for them or by their function. We often do this for people too — “she’s a useful friend” and “he’s not a generous person”.
Labeling can be useful because it allows us to communicate ideas and concepts. Mental and verbal labels also help reduce our complex reality into something the human mind can grasp.
But labeling can be harmful because it means we’re taking one particular aspect of a thing and assuming that it applies to the whole thing. Because my friend canceled on me one time, I label her as an unreliable person. Because the editor rejected my article, I label him as biased against me. Because both these events happened on the same day, I label this day as crappy.
The problem is that by labeling, our brains almost completely neglect the nuances of the context. Rarely is a person or situation entirely black or white, but by labeling we fail to see the shades of grey in between. As Eckhart Tolle reminds us, “the quicker you are in attaching verbal or mental labels to things, people, or situations, the more shallow and lifeless your reality becomes, and the more deadened you become to reality, the miracle of life that continuously unfolds within and around you.” To sum up an entire human being and their actions in one label is to distort The Truth. Reality is often too complex for us to even summarize things in an article (I’m trying), let alone a single-worded label!
To catch your brain in its labeling mode, listen for judgment phrases or emotion-laden labels. “He’s an idiot”, “This place is a dump”, “She’s a pain”, “He’s disloyal”, “This day is awful”. Listen also for words that generalize a particular aspect of a thing to the whole thing: “never”, “always”, “huge”, “tiny”. Once you spot these words, then ask yourself “Is X really Y?” where X is a person, thing, or situation and Y is the label you’ve ascribed to X.
When the other three modes (filtering, assuming, and inferring) are activated, it can be surprisingly difficult to answer “Is X really Y?” in the negative. Our response is likely to be “Of course X is Y” because our filtering and assumption-generating processes have geared us to focus on the Y-like aspects of X. To combat this, follow up on this question by also asking its opposite: “Can I find examples when X was not Y?” Research suggests that by negating this question, we’re forced to consider the opposite which helps us overcome our blind spots. When we look hard enough, the answer to this is often “yes, of course.” There are many aspects of this day that were not only not crappy but also gloriously joyful; there are many instances when my friend was truly the most reliable person in my life.
Our brains are our main tools for understanding the world around us and the events that happen in our lives. Unfortunately, our brains often FAIL us. When we’re faced with something that doesn’t seem to go our way, our brains Filter out positive information, Assume the worst about the current situation, Infer that things are only going to get worse, and Label events and situations with general statements.
Our brains can be bad journalists, distorting the truth about our lives. Just as we wouldn’t blindly trust any news outlet, we also shouldn’t always trust our brains’ interpretation of events, situations, and people. Always question your journalist-brain and catch the language it’s using. Then, ask yourself: (i) what part of the story am I missing? (ii) are these assumptions true?, (iii) will these brain-generated predictions really happen?, (iv) is X really Y?
By asking yourself these questions you are recalibrating your brains’ initial gut reactions to these “adverse” events, and we should end up with something closer to a more objective representation of reality.