Growing and developing as a person means changing. Changing deeply held beliefs is hard. When people talk about getting out of their comfort zones, changing deeply held beliefs is one of the major places. Most people can’t do it. They have beliefs they can’t get rid of. They don’t even distinguish between their beliefs (something inside their heads) and the object of their beliefs (something outside their heads). They confuse the map with the territory.
The world is large and complex. As complex and wonderful as our brains are, they can’t comprehend everything at once. They didn’t evolve to. They evolved to understand relevant patterns. When it latches onto a pattern, sometimes it gets stuck and can’t help seeing it. For example, look at this picture of the surface of Mars taken by a NASA Viking orbiter in the 70s.
It’s a face, right? Even knowing it’s not a face, you can’t help seeing the face.
Same with this image taken in 2008 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
And this one:
As much as we enjoy seeing faces, we’ll understand our world better if we accept that sometimes what looks familiar has nothing to do with what we think it is, however much our brains evolved to see faces. Only then can we learn what’s going on. We’ll get nowhere understanding Mars if we keep trying to find faces in its rocks. We should take a few moments to make sure because actual faces on Mars would be astounding, but they aren’t.
We keep seeing faces even when we know they aren’t. Look at that Viking object above at higher resolution:
Because of that predisposition, we still see remnants of that face, but without the distraction of thinking it’s a face, can learn more about Mars. If your goal in life is to see faces and feel good about it, then seeing faces improves your life. But if you want to understand the world, seeing faces distracts you.
Some people believed it was a face built by Martians and argue against people who disagree. We hold on to simple interpretations when we like them despite contrary evidence, even when evidence shows the complexity underneath is not what we thought. We tend to accept evidence that supports our beliefs and reject evidence to the contrary.
The mind is more complex than mountains on Mars so you can expect we’ll simplify a lot more things about our minds than Mars, with far worse consequences for understanding ourselves. Misunderstanding Mars’s surface only confuses our understanding of Mars. It isn’t personal. Misunderstanding the human mind confuses our understanding about ourselves and everyone we know. It’s personal and it moves you in the opposite direction of self-awareness, a cornerstone of nearly every system of personal development.
We have so many counterproductive models about ourselves. People had (and have) models for gender roles we’d consider chauvinist today and models of what skin color implied about intelligence we’d recoil from in shock if we heard today, for example. If we consider those models counterproductive today, you can rest assured people in the future will see flaws in our models. If you were magically transported to a time of slavery, would you adopt slavery-supporting beliefs or would you keep your current beliefs? I’m sure readers of my blog would keep their current beliefs. Here is a harder question: if you were raised in a time of slavery and taught slavery-supporting beliefs, would you prefer you kept the beliefs your parents and culture taught you or change them, say to believe everyone is equal under the law?
How easy or hard do you think changing those beliefs would be? Some things would make it incredibly difficult. What if your family owned slaves? What if your school system taught your children slavery-supporting beliefs? The government and churches promoted these beliefs. People you know would feel threatened if you changed your beliefs. They might threaten you with violence, especially if they felt you risked their well-being and financial security.
To pick a more subtle topic I’ve written on recently, about a century ago, Carl Jung popularized the concepts of introversion and extroversion, simplifying our understanding of some parts of the mind. How did these concepts come to be? Did someone derive them from first principles? No. Did someone prove them? No. Someone made them up. Then, like seeing faces on Mars, people started seeing the pattern everywhere, even when they weren’t there.
Like our perception of those mountains on Mars, we continue to see that simplicity despite how that simplicity keeps us from understanding ourselves better. Just like we call the rock formations on Mars “faces” despite knowing they aren’t, we keep calling some behavior and people introverted. That perception is based in belief that we can change. I’ve had the experience of changing my belief from a one-dimensional model to a two-dimensional one, which improved my life a lot. Without that experience I don’t know how easily I could change my belief.
The book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Canâ€™t Stop Talking that I wrote about the other day read like someone who couldn’t stop seeing faces. Again, there’s nothing wrong with seeing faces, but if your goal is to understand yourself, change, and grow, the inability to distinguish between a belief and the object of the belief will get in your way. Like the concept of race or the idea that a woman’s place is in the home, introversion, extroversion, and a one-dimensional spectrum between them are made up and exist only in the minds of people who believe them.
This is not a face.
If you want to see one there, enjoy it. I think you’ll enjoy life more if you see the birds and see that they just happened to resemble one. That way you still get to enjoy the face and you understand the world better. Likewise, I think you’ll grow more if you disregard the concepts of a one-dimensional spectrum between introversion and extroversion, or those concepts themselves.
That’s just one example of a belief people have hard times replacing despite having no reason to hold on to it beyond that they’ve had it a while and don’t know what to replace it with. A huge skill in life is coming up with alternative beliefs that improve your life. It’s a core and great element of leadership. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” dream and how much it helped many people’s lives over the beliefs it replaced.
Tomorrow I’ll post a replacement for the one-dimensional spectrum.
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