Question your Thoughts
By: T. Franklin Murphy | October 2015 (edited September 2018)
Thoughts are not facts. They often are deceptive, supporting previously determined ideas. for wisdom we must challenge unfruitful thoughts, examining the filters limiting learning and stumping growth.
Acknowledging self-deception is disquieting. We live in an altered-reality formed by our own mind. Our perceptions seem so real we can’t distinguish the mirage from the desert. Life, as we see it, appears ordered, built on foundations of logic. We live in this subjective world. The colors, smells, and sounds project personalized images into the conscious mind. The meanings behind the observed facts are suggestible, quietly interpreted by the unconscious workings of the brain. Until we recognize our susceptibility to this unsettling glitch of perception, we can’t escape the illusions, naked and vulnerable to error.
Avoiding repeated disappointments, while expanding successes, is the hallmark of wisdom. The hardware of the mind extracts information from experience, examining associating rewards and punishments, and identifying the precipitating causes. This is accomplished through the blur of subjective perceptions. Phantom causes easily creep into these interpretations; events, people, or groupings get bound together and blamed. Wrongly generalized information can be damaging both to those judged and those judging. Our failures to thrive can easily be projected on policies, scapegoats, or discrimination. There often is some truth supporting conclusions; but if we ignore relevant information that we have control over, we may never escape the tethers holding us down. Faulty attributions only serve as distraction from the work—never resolving the underlying cause.
"The hardware of the mind extracts information from experience, examining associating rewards and punishments, and identifying the precipitating causes."
If distorted interpretations were not detrimental enough, they don’t exist independently. Once we accept an interpretation as true that (faulty) reality lives on, infecting new experience with the tainted foundation of accepted falsehoods. Distorted views bias future interpretations of experience. These implicit biases manipulate reality to smoothly fit into accepted beliefs.
Pulling defined and usable information from the complexity of experience is a skill of survival, providing humans with an evolutionary advantage in this competitive environment. By storing wheat during plentiful harvest, civilizations were able to survive famines. Learning from past weather patterns, intelligent agricultural societies learned adaptive responses to unseen disasters.
We also learn on much smaller platforms. Seemingly insignificant events are pumped with information. We don’t have time to investigate each moment in detail, so we make quick assumptions to act upon. These mental shortcuts—heuristics—provide road maps for quick processing, saving energy and time. We scan the environment for familiarity, using incoming information to direct choice. The constant flow of information would overwhelm our limited system if each moment was processed fresh, without established knowledge to provide meaning. We readily disregard much of what we see and hear, once we settle on a meaning, determining whether the experience is helpful or dangerous. The meaning we give motivates the response. We react much differently to the man running towards us if we believe he is a robber rather than a jogger. The binding of experience with past interpretations allows for quick action. The jogging shorts, the Nike shoes, and the ear buds signal safety and we gently step aside to let the man run by. When we pull appropriate information from experience that is helpful for future action, we succeed (usually).
The problem arises when we draw inaccurate conclusions from the moment, creating faulty associations—the causes we determine were responsible were innocent and unrelated. Hurtful prejudices, stereo types and assumptions impinge on fairness and obscure the true causes. We harm ourselves and we harm others with these faulty assignments of cause.
Beliefs learned from family and society are an underlying culprit. These beliefs dictate perceptions. Until we loosen our grasp on faulty beliefs, we can’t recognize their distorting effect. Only through willingness to recognizing potential errors (faulty belief) can we open our minds to detect the destructive delusions marring our futures. Immediate reaction to imminent danger is essential for survival; but when time is available, we must invite higher order thinking to exam the world a little deeper, challenging biases, and considering alternate explanations.
We must routinely question our thoughts, investigate them for meaning and beliefs. From this position of power, we can improve our choices, acting more in-line with values, ethics, and our desired destinations in life.