"In what kind of world do you live?" Ask this question to two people living in the same area and you will most likely get two very contrasting answers. One might see their environment as a rich tapestry of endless opportunity while the other could as easily see the same environment as dark and threatening. What's more, both perspectives might be correct, with both realities occurring in the same space and time. This is because our eyes take in far more information than our brains can interpret, which means that we have to ignore more than 99% of what is going on around us. "If you tried to analyse every little thing that's happening to you, you wouldn't make it across the room when you get up in the morning," says Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. However, what we choose to focus on directly affects our perception of reality.
We actually construct our vision of reality through guesswork and assumption. Look at any picture and your brain will lock onto certain key features within that picture and then fill in the blanks by either guessing or assuming what the overall picture might be. This way of processing information means that two people can look at the same picture but see radically different images. In the late 19th century, American psychologist Joseph Jastrow demonstrated this fact with an optical illusion called "rabbit-duck" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg). The picture resembles either a duck or a rabbit depending on how your brain interprets it.
Richard Wiseman is one of a number of scientists studying how our brains interpret reality; when he showed test subjects the rabbit-duck image he made an interesting discovery. Some subjects could only see the rabbit while others could only see the duck. However, a small proportion of subjects could see both. Further psychological tests showed that this latter group also tended to be made up of the most creative individuals. Wiseman says, "They can't stop flipping between the two images. Because what they're doing is continuously reorganising the stimuli in their minds, they turn out to be far more creative people." It seems that creativity activates our ability to see more than one perspective, which in turn gives us the power to choose what we want our brains to tune in to.
Creativity is a consciousness expanding tool that opens our minds to an array of possibilities. If you want to create any kind of positive change in your life, you have to imagine it first. Imagination creates an alternate reality from the one we currently perceive and when we hold an image of improvement and expansion in our minds, we begin to see more than one perspective at the same time. We see life as it is while at the same time seeing how it could be. Like the creative subjects in the rabbit-duck experiment, our brains continually flip between the two interpretations. All we have to do is choose the one that feels best and we will find an immediate improvement in how we are feeling. In this way we can bring about an instant change to our reality.
Another key factor in how we perceive the world around us is found in the type of narrative we use to comment on what we see. Contrary to being a sign of madness, talking to yourself is a vital part of how you interpret the world around you. What kind of story do you tell yourself? Is it one filled with hope or dread? It was once thought that the primary use of language was for communication between individuals, but recent studies show that the vast majority of the language we use is internal. According to Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University in California, "On average, 70% of our total verbal experience is in our head." Furthermore, it appears that our internal dialogue has a direct affect on what our brains tune in to.
Gabriella Vigliocco of the University College London conducted an experiment where volunteers sat in front of a display of one thousand dots, each of which was moving either randomly or vertically. She found that when volunteers heard verbs associated with the predominant movement of the dots, such as "rise" or "climb," they were more likely to correctly detect the direction of motion. Conversely, hearing the opposite word to the predominant motion made volunteers less likely to detect the movement. Similarly, Gary Lupyan of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Emily Ward of Yale University showed test subjects a picture of an object, such as a vegetable, in one eye and a mass of random scribbles in the other eye to test whether the scribbles would mask perception. The images were shown for six seconds, during which time some subjects also heard the name of the object, some heard the name of a different object, and the remainder heard nothing. Those subjects who heard nothing on average correctly identified the object 80% of the time. Those who heard the actual name of the object had an 85% success rate, while those who heard an incorrect name only identified the object correctly 75% of the time. We tend to find it easier to spot the kinds of things our conscious minds are thinking about, whether it is an object or an emotion.
When our internal dialogue is predominantly fear-based (e.g. worrying about the possibility of illness, poverty, or sadness), we tend to view the world as filled with potential threats to our happiness. Conversely, when our internal dialogue is predominantly joy based (e.g. actively focusing on those things that make us feel good), we perceive a world filled with a rich array of possibilities to further expand those good feelings. Quite simply, if you focus on sadness you will see many things in life to further make you sad, but equally and oppositely, if your predominant focus is on being happy, you will see an endless stream of opportunities to expand your joy. This is why affirmations can be so powerful. By repeating a positive word or phrase to yourself, you set your brain to focus on things that match those positive thoughts.
Many of the ideas I share in my book Blissology: The Art and Science of Happiness revolve around activating our imaginations to consciously create an internal dialogue that is predominantly positive and expansive. For in doing so we open our eyes and minds to seeing the best in everything and everyone, and are able to take full advantage of every opportunity for improvement. There is joy to be found in every situation and circumstance. It is right before our eyes if we can just tune in, feel it, and see it.
If there is any area of your life that causes you stress or sadness, the key to transforming it always lies first in imagining it the way you would like it to be rather than how it is. When we focus on what is, we will naturally tend to attract the perpetuation of that situation. However, when we focus on what could be, we open a doorway into new possibilities where we get to choose a different way of perceiving and being, where we tell a new story. This is fundamental to changing your reality and creating a life that continually feels good to you. It is possible to have a bliss-filled life that consistently provides you with experiences to further expand your happiness. If we dare to dream of a better life and remind ourselves daily of that dream, there is no situation we cannot change and no end to the improvement we can experience.
New Scientist Vol 207 No 2776 (4 September 2010)
BBC Focus Magazine No 222 (November 2010)