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?