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Seeing the world in a more useful way

December 20th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

In my last post I wrote about how we don’t see the world they way it is, we see the world the way we are (since writing that, I’ve learned that this is a saying that comes from the Judaic Talmud). In the entertaining and thought-provoking video below, Beau Lotto demonstrates this same point using some eye-popping optical illusions.

Seeing the world in a more useul way

Lotto shows that what we see has no inherent meaning of its own – the same visual stimulus on our retina could come from an infinite number of real-world situations. What our brains do is create meaning and significance by making some assumptions about what it is we are seeing – assumptions based on what has been useful to us to assume in the past.

So evolution explains how we see the world now – those of our ancestors that survived to pass on their genes probably made assumptions about the world that were more useful than the assumptions made by their brothers and sisters who didn’t survive. They spotted predators hiding in the bushes, for example, and reacted more quickly.

The conclusion that Lotto draws in the video clip is that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is – we can’t do that. Our brains evolved to see the world in the way it was useful to see the world in the past.

Ted Talk: Beau Lotto: optical illusions show how we see

But Lotto also makes a wider point. He argues that what is true of visual information is true of all information in general. There is no inherent meaing in information, it’s what we do with that information that matters – we make sense of it.

Making more useful assumptions

We can see this process at work in the way that we make judgements about other people, including complete strangers. We size people up by the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, how they walk and talk, and so on. We do this in ways that we are not even aware of. So within 20 seconds of meeting someone for the first time, we have decided whether we like them or not.

When we do this we are making assumptions about people based on limited information – assumptions which may have been helpful in the past. But this kind of assumption is also often wrong.

Rather than try to fight our natural tendency to make assumptions – which is nearly impossible to do – what we can do is be aware of the assumptions we are making. Notice how we are responding to other people, and ask ourselves on what information our assumptions are based. That then gives us an opportunity to seek out new information that might change our point of view – we can be more open-minded, and more generous towards the other person than we might otherwise have been.

This is very relevant when we are working with people in conflict. They will be telling themselves stories that make sense of their situations, based on assumptions that may well have helped them in the past. But there may be a more useful set of assumptions they could make instead – more useful in terms of meeting their needs. And we can help them to test out and choose to alter their assumptions.

This applies to mediators too. We need to be aware of the judgements we are making about the parties in the conflict, catch ourselves making those assumptions, and give ourselves the opportunity to change our minds as we find out more, and be open to that possibility.