Positive Psychology and staying open to new ideas

This is the sixth in a series of blogs/newsletters about the courses, teachers and books that have inspired me in the past ten years.  This week I’m looking at Positive Psychology and staying open to new ideas.

We can only see a fraction of reality

It seems that what we think we are observing around us is such a small percentage of reality that not only do we miss the “big picture” as well as the fine details, we actually fail to observe and recall hardly anything at all.  In an amazing experiment students were asked to observe four differently coloured shapes for a fraction of a second.  The shapes were flashed momentarily again and one of the shapes was rotated either to the left or to the right.  The subjects were then asked to state whether there had been a rotation to the left or right.  Most people failed at this task and in fact on average people were only able to tell if there had been a movement to the left or to the right if there was less than three objects to observe..Imagine that! We think we can know all that is going on around us but in fact at a conscious level we can hardly observe or recall anything.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:

“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.

Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening. There are so many examples of this such as optical illusions and false recall by eye witnesses . Illusions demonstrate that these really simple things that you think are going on in front of you are not actually representing physical reality but instead your brain is constructing something.

Our construction of reality shapes and alters our view of the physical world. It also limits our cognitive ability because we weigh our views more importantly than others. This blinkered view can often put us in opposition to our friends and colleagues.

A lot of this happens unconsciously. We don’t know how much we’re interpreting. The world presents itself like it’s reality and we don’t know how much we’ve already filtered that. We perceive the world as real, but we’re doing a lot of interpretation of  the data as it comes in. This can be a real impediment when we’re in an argument because each person sees the world as real and thinks the other must be crazy or deliberately trying to destroy things when in fact they’re just trying to bring their own expectations and facts to the table.

Recognizing this limited view is an important step in recognising that the truth of reality can only emerge through dialogue. David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt: the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there.

This umwelt creates a belief that our view is the correct one and also an arrogance about our abilities compared to others.  At work, politics and in our home life it can be a recipe for disaster.


Our perception of reality is influenced by many factors including mood and language

As a further illustration of how our interpretation of reality is illusory and not constant our perception of colours is influenced by our moods. Over the last few decades there has been a growing body of research suggesting that how we interpret what we see is subjective and contextual, with many influencing factors such as the social context we’re faced with, and our prior learning and habits.  For example there are a number of languages in Africa and in Europe (such as old Welsh) that have only a small handful of words differentiating colours.  One African tribe had just five words to describe colours and used these words to group colours in ways which Western eyes could not comprehend.  The tribe lived on the red dusty savannah and had developed a unique and useful way of perceiving their environment in order to extract the maximum nutritional value and beauty from their environment.  Their language developed as their perception developed and may have helped shape how they experience the world. When faced with a range of similar colours and asked to choose the odd one out, Westerners typically found it easy to pick the odd one out whereas tribe members struggled.  Tribe members however, were able to pick out different shades of the same colour which were imperceptible to the Western eye.

Recent research suggests that in addition to the construction of language and social preferences, our emotional state also has an influence on colour perception.  People feeling more in control of their lives, confident and upbeat about the future can perceive a greater range of colours with a greater degree of accuracy compared to people feeling they have little control over their lives and the future.  They are also better at identifying solutions or opportunities when faced with complex problems or decisions.  Positive Psychology suggests that we can use these influences to alter not only our perceptions of the physical world such as colour perception, but the construction of our mental world – attitudes, biases and ways of representing information.  When we experience a healthy balance of positive to negative emotions we are able to process information in a more accurate manner than people who have a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions.

So what we can perceive is very different from people around us and is influenced by the language we speak and the mood we are in.

We think we are observing truth

As we observe the world it is a human tendency to think that the way we see things is “the correct way”.

The asymmetry of human perception means that we have a tendency to attribute our success to our skills and our failures to external events causing us to have a strong belief that we are better than others at what we do for a living.  Nasssim Nicholas Taleb reviewed journals
investigating the difference between what we know and what we actually know.  In a series of replicated studies, experts and lay people were asked to provide confidence limits surrounding an assertion.  For example, “I am 98% confident that the population of Brazil is between 100 and 200 million”.  It turns out that on average the 2% error rate is more like 45%.  We are 22 times more confident in our beliefs than we ought to be.  The studies indicate that the more “expert” we are, the greater the average error rate.  The more information we have the more a confirmation bias (looking for confirming evidence) and belief perseverance (stickiness of beliefs), creates the illusion of certainty.

Compounding our errors

The problem of limited perception may be exacerbated by the asymmetry of our brains. Iain McGilchrist has written about this in his brilliant book, The Master and His Emissary.  The conventional notion is that the left hemisphere is for fine processing of information whilst the right is more holistic and big picture.  This is a vast over simplification but hold this thought for a moment!


The book’s title comes from the legend of a wise ruler whose domains grew so large that he had to train emissaries to visit them instead of going himself. One of these, however, grew so cocky that he thought he was wiser than his master, and eventually deposed him. And this, says McGilchrist, is what the Left hemisphere tends to do. In fact, the balance between these two halves is, like so many things in evolution, a somewhat rough, practical arrangement, quite capable of going wrong. The bifurcation seems to have become necessary in the first place because these two main functions – comprehensiveness and precision – are both necessary, but are too distinct to be combined. The normal sequence, then, is that the comprehensive partner (right) first sees the whole prospect – picks out something that needs investigating – and hands it over to the specialist (left) , who processes it. But, once those pieces of work are done, it is necessary for the wider vision to take over again and decide what to do next.

Much of the time this is indeed what happens and it is what has enabled brains of this kind to work so well, both for us and for other animals. But sometimes there is difficulty about the second transaction. Since it is the nature of precision not to look outward – not to bother about what is around it – the specialist partner does not always know when it ought to hand its project back to headquarters for further processing. Being something of a success-junkie, it often prefers to hang on to it itself. And since we do have some control over this shift between detailed and general thinking, that tendency can be helped or hindered by the ethic that prevails in the culture around it.


McGilchrist  notes that there is a tendency for the left brain to dwell in detail that it believes to be real and seeks confirmation of its world view ( a process perhaps enhanced by personalised google searches  which reveals the world to us based on what an algorithm thinks we want to see.)

This tends to narrow our field of vision further and makes us strongly attach to our ego and beliefs making us difficult, cantankerous and old. So not only is our perception flawed but we tend to seek confirmation of misperception as we get older

Staying open to ideas

So in order to stay open to the ideas of others  and keep a fresh perspective we need to know about the tendencies we have to pick up false information and hold a rigid world view. McGilchrist describes the left brain delusion as like living in a hall of mirrors where we constantly reach out to what is familiar and comfortable.

To break free of these chains we need to do at least two things:

–       Increase our field of perception

–       Understand that a closer proximity to truth can only come through dialogue



Increasing our field of perception

There are a number of strategies for doing this:

  • Rearrange Your Home Environment and take different routes and find new areas to explore
  • Set goals which are slightly outside comfort zones but are attainable
  • Change How You Present Yourself – dressing differently makes you feel, think and act differently
  • Reintroduce play into your life – being happy fosters neural plasticity – you are 30 times more likely to laugh in the company others compared to being alone
  • Construct goals and “to do” lists which are divided between maintaining your existing world view and developing a new one
  • Human touch fosters neural plasticity – its associated with a hormone called oxytocin which is related to a flexible thinking style – so get a massage!


Seeing the reality that others see

Our view can never be perfect but a more accurate view of reality comes when you weave together different stories:

  • Explore the differences between dialogue and debate – what are the characteristics that harden opinions in one and foster creativity in another
  • Identifying strengths of colleagues – spend some time thinking about what they are good at
  • Force Yourself to Think from Alternate Points of View in Monotonous Situations
  • Write Out Your Day From Another Point of View – explore your experiences from the view point of another
  • Edit Your Own Story – examine a challenge that you have in your life and write about it on three separate occasions.  Note how your mood, the time of day and other factors influence your interpretation of the issue

I hope you found this interesting.  If you did please pass on to your colleagues and also  read old blogs by choosing to follow our blog


Posted on March 22, 2012, in Coaching, Meditation etc., positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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