Our minds are tricky, sneaky and pretty freaky things. Your brain can fool you into believing so many things, perceiving and misperceiving, and even change your recollection of past events. As if all these optical illusion posts lately aren’t enough to have you questioning how you see things, there’s a lovely range of things happening to you, caused by your brain, that you’re not even aware of at all.
Your mind warps things, and I’m not just talking about forgetting details or adding them on when you try to remember events. This is especially treacherous when it comes to relationships. Someone mentioned on Twitter the other day that it’s funny how the people you at one time could not imagine possibly loving more, can one day be people you never even think about at all, and when you do you wonder what the heck you were even thinking. Initially it seems like that is pretty odd, but then I got to thinking about all the times I was convinced of something and soon thereafter looked at myself and wondered what the heck I was thinking. Several wardrobe faux pas from my teens come to mind… *cough*
Anyone who’s a bit clued up about human behaviour knows we tend to create a preconceived image in our heads of how we think things or people are. Often it’s a picture painted in the way we want it to be, and the absence of actual personal experience with that person or thing leaves a nice, big open world of possibility that it might well be true. This is how people can easily day dream about their crushes and play out imaginary scenarios in their heads about what the person would say, how they would laugh, how they would interact with them. Often – I’d even go so far as to say pretty much all the time – they have a harsh moment of disillusionment when they do actually meet the person and spend a bit of time with them. The same thing goes for dreaming about a trip overseas, a party, or anything else you haven’t yet experienced. In spite of our outward, cynical reactions to the world, our internal natures tend to be hopeful most of the time. We choose to hope and believe that what is coming, where we’re going or who we’ll meet is good and will bring positive experiences. Many times we build it up so much in our minds that reality just doesn’t live up to it. Let’s face it: even the most critically, methodically planned thing like a wedding, can still go wrong thanks to forces beyond our control. It should be accepted.
So now, there’s also the flip to this whole situation. It turns out, not only do we build up these magnificent hopes and visions of people before we really know them, we also break down our memories and skew them, after we break up with these people or have a fallout where we can’t reconcile our differences. I read an interesting article the other day, explaining how we alter our memories of a person, based on our current feelings about them. We highlight and exaggerate memories we have of people, based on how we feel about them now. So if you were once madly in love with someone and they could do nothing wrong in your eyes, but you had an ugly breakup, you’d find it hard not to suddenly think back and only remember all the things they did wrong, all the times they didn’t do or say what you wanted or hoped they would. Everything from the time they didn’t do the dishes to the way they cleared their throat all too often – things that before were happily overlooked – suddenly becomes all you can think about when you look back now. So what’s happening here? Basically your brain is adjusting your memories – putting some into focus and repressing others that don’t align with what you believe about that person today. I’m guessing this is what makes people have those kinds of arguments where they mention things from months or years ago that the other person did wrong. It’s like your mind detects that you are talking about that person’s wrongful actions and it goes and searches for more information of the same kind, to further bolster your argument and prove you are ‘right’. All of this is obviously terrible for any effort of actually getting along and making peace. Of course there’s the other side of this as well. For example, an old lady who was in a less than fulfilling marriage for years who now finds herself widowed and alone, will tend to think back with fond and happy memories of her husband. When we lose people we love and care for, we only remember the good about them, the things that make us smile.
My take on it all is this: at some point in time you obviously got along with that person or at the very least tolerated them enough to allow them and yourself the opportunity for exploration. You clicked and things took a natural course where you got to know each other better. As much as it takes only a few seconds to decide if you like someone or not, it takes a long period of time to truly get to know someone. Not even an information packed “100 things you don’t know about me” list would get you any closer to knowing if you’ll still get along with the person a year down the line. You have to take into consideration the physiological aspect before you even start delving deeper. From what I recall reading ages ago, the first six months of a relationship is pretty much fuelled by hormones and unusually high levels of mental happy juice like endorphins, serotonin and the like. Once those levels start dropping and level out again, you’re left with the ability to think a bit more objectively and see the person in a more balanced light. This is where it goes awry for many people (although admittedly sometimes it happens way before this stage), as they start thinking maybe things aren’t quite right here, start feeling disappointed in their partners in some way. This is the part where all the other factors that make a relationship work kick in to either save the day or fail miserably. Things like agreeability, trust, confidence, knowing you can rely on the person and that your long term goals are actually lining up. But that’s a whole other post altogether. Point is, next time you start cursing your ex or bad mouthing old partners, bear in mind that you are probably seeing things in a not entirely unbiased way.
Relationships is only one example of how we warp how we think and recall things. In some way or other, we are all twisting our perceptions and interpretations. It’s a hard thing to keep a handle on unless you really have developed well beyond your average human being. If you’ve ever known or seen a fanatical person, you’ll have a perfect example of this in action again. Everyone, from headstrong conservationists to religious zealots to gym freaks, are shaping their beliefs, actions and memories based on what they actively are involved in. If you so strongly want something to be true, your mind will find or invent ways to give you the justification you so badly need to carry on with your life. This is why you can give ten people the same sentence to read and they’ll each come back with their own interpretations of what it means. It’s also how people can see different images when they’re all looking at the same drawing. Again, based on what you already believe at present, and of course also in relation to your past experiences and perceptions in life. People inherently have a need for acceptance, the extreme of which is insecure people who desperately seek the approval of others because they don’t have independent confidence in themselves. I’m thinking that in that same way, if you really want to believe that aliens have infiltrated our planet and walk among us, you would go digging and searching everywhere for proof or justification of this. Your mind is basically trying to have your back, even if what you believe is utterly outrageous or unreasonable.
Our entire world is shaped by our perceptions and interpretations of what happens to us every single moment of every day. It often makes me wonder if what one person sees is at all the same as what the next sees, and at the same time I find it astonishing how nobody seems to be aware of this and stops to question if they are really right in how they are doing things or what they say about people.