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 of course, “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 often seep into our daily experiences.
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 have the thought: “I am not good enough.” This thought is not new. It comes up when you feel rejected by a romantic interest, when you make a mistake at work, or when your pants feel too tight. Once this thought emerges, it washes over like a flood - the mind’s very own natural disaster.
It is no wonder we often interpret how we feel to represent who we are. We condemn ourselves by fusing the thought with the feeling but no thought can actually determine your worth. Thoughts express how we feel in a moment. They are illusions expressing transient feelings. Who you are can never be wholly portrayed in a fleeting thought. Remember, regardless of whatever venomous thought you have about yourself, you can still breathe, connect, love, and live life while you are having it. René Descartes proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am.” How about: I am, therefore I think?