This is not a blog post

How we see the world influences every facet of our experience. Do you take things at face value, or try and see beyond the obvious? One important aspect of survival is being able to assess the outside world. We scrutinize our environment to determine what is good or bad, real or fake. What about when it comes to our inner world? Are we adept at understanding how our own minds work?

René Magritte’s painting, The Treachery of Images, challenges the viewer’s perceptions of reality. Unlike most surrealist artists, Magritte did not distort his subject matter. Instead, he changed the context of everyday objects, prompting his audience to become aware of their thought processes. At first, it seems as though we are seeing an image of a pipe while being told it is not a pipe. But how can this be? Why are my eyes deceiving me? But ofcourse, “It is a painting of a pipe.” Although the mind tries to make sense of ambiguity, initial instincts are often connected to the literal meaning of an image. How does our predisposition to think literally affect our daily experience?

Don’t think of a white bear.

FAIL. You thought of one, didn’t you? This can be explained by ironic process theory: the deliberate attempt to suppress thoughts actually makes them more persistent. Pretty simple principle, right? Unfortunately, the negative effects of this phenomenon seep into our daily experience.

Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, suggests dysfunctional behavioral patterns can be attributed to our literal perceptions of language. For example, you may think, “I am not good enough.” This thought arises because your horrific excuse for a boyfriend has ditched you again, leaving you at home alone eating Ben & Jerrys. It is not enough you think this thought once. Instead, it cycles through your mind like a washing machine on crack. The reality is that a thought can not determine your worth. It may express how you feel, however. Despite this distinction, we often interpret how we feel to represent who we are. We condemn ourselves when in reality, our thoughts are an illusion. They are simply ideas expressing transient feelings. Who you are can never be wholly portrayed in a fleeting thought. Remember, regardless of whatever venemous thought you have about yourself, you can still live your life while you are having it. René Descartes proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am.” How about: I am, therefore I think?


5 thoughts on “This is not a blog post

  1. Elizabeth,

    Interesting post. I had heard of instances of ironic process theory but didn’t know it had a name. (Quick, don’t think of a red faced monkey)

    I have heard of it’s use in sports, and sports psychology. Example: professional golfers, who have to hit shots over water or other hazards, focus on the target not the trouble. Amateur golfers worry about the hazard (mustn’t hit it into the water) and therefore subconsciously instruct themselves to hit it into the water.

    Have you heard of any applications in business, or business communication? I’d be interested. Thanks


  2. Hi Gavin, thank you for the comment! Great example about the golfers…I hadn’t thought of applying this to sports but that works really well. I can’t say I know much about business but I could definitely look into it. My initial thoughts went to personality traits of prominent CEOs. I think narcissism plays a role in how they avoid the traps of our literal brains.

  3. The one simple thing made obvious by Magritte is that sight precedes hearing (or reading) for most people. I sometimes show Magritte’s work to people and ask them, “What’s wrong here?”. Nine out of ten say it is the caption )

    • When you ask the viewer, “What’s wrong here?” you set in motion specific cognitive processes. When we are asked to analyze a task and search for errors, of course we will find them. However, language is often constructed with rules and patterns which encourage literal thinking. This does not imply we lack the capability to think abstractly or analytically. Rather, it suggests literality is the most immediate and basic reaction when we are not influenced by biased contexts.

      • Well, this is true. But even though they are set on course to search for a wrongness, and a fast search at that (triggering literal thinking) they can come up with the answer, “it’s the image”. But this happens much less often ) It does not imply they could not think abstractly, of course.

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