We move in a world created by our history and often pretend the past and present aren’t connected. A partner becomes annoyed at what we do or say, and we can’t accept the notion that their annoyance is our fault. They say something we find hurtful and don’t recognize that their words are connected to past experiences. We give advice in the form of “If that were me….” and don’t understand why it’s ignored or viewed negatively.

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The delusion that life exists within a vacuum without connections to the past is lauded in the belief that a “fresh start” is always possible; that we have the ability to wipe clean the slate. Admonitions such as “that’s the past,” does little to diminish present day effects of old unskillful words and behaviors. Just as the turtle does with his shell, we bring our history with us into everything we do—unless we have perpetual amnesia.

Personal History and Present Behaviors

As I age, I see that many of my current behaviors connect to my past. I know much of my writing on discrimination is based on my experiences growing up in a small, anti-Semitic town in Eastern Pennsylvania. If my life as a child had centered around a privileged social position, I know I currently would be focusing on different topics.

Our history not only consists of those things we have experienced, but also the losses we have suffered—emotional, physical, and cognitive.  Those losses that are significant—ones that defined our identity—are rarely just accepted and put to bed without any further thought. They become “issues” that ferment like a wound that won’t heal. A family caregiver once said to me when talking about the death of her daughter, “I knew I’ll never get over it. The pain just transforms itself into different things.”

How We Process Information

We may have a better understanding of why we do what we do, by thinking in terms of how we gather, process, store, and use information. And conversely, why other people choose to do things we may think are wrong or bizarre.

People often think of brains as bigger versions of laptop computers. But there are vast differences between how the two work. The brain never quite “fact-checks” the way a computer does. You write an email with a specific address and your internet server “decides,” whether to accept or reject it. You then receive one of two messages: “email sent,” or “no such address.” The feedback is simple—you either typed the address correctly, you typed it incorrectly, or the address no longer exists.

Nothing is quite as straight-forward when the brain processes information. For example, someone you love says “You aren’t sensitive to my needs. You never listen.” The brain says, Okay, I know what the words mean, but is that true? Is that what I remember doing? Am I capable of being insensitive?  It compares the incoming information with its historical memory—experiences and beliefs.

If the information is totally new (very rare), the brain just stores it with minimal distortion for future use. But, if it’s not new, or is a modification of what’s already been stored, the brain views it through a complex filter of experiences, beliefs, and needs. It does this to attach “meaning” to it.

Unless you have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia that stop access to memories, you’re stuck with perceptual filters that can bend the meaning of the message. And what makes the interpretation even more difficult is that you may not have any idea why your behaviors were interpreted as they were.

The World According to Rashomon

Since all perceptual filters are unique, we live in a world of multiple realities where what I think of as “the truth” is just as colored as what someone else believes. In the 1950’s movie Rashomon, written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, four characters describe a gruesome death. Although the four had witnessed the same event, their descriptions of what happened were substantially different. Many people would reject the possibility that all four were telling the truth. After all, they all were involved in the same event and heard, touched, smelled, and saw the same things. But “truth” in the movie starts to change when information is crunched through each individual’s unique values and needs.

In the 18th century, philosophers spent countless words arguing about “truth” and “reality.” Some believed that there was only one reality, regardless of what anyone believed. Others maintained that truth is relative since everybody sees the world differently. While that discussion was largely academic, the importance of understanding why people may see things differently has real world consequences.

The bottom line? The next time you are in an argument with someone and begin to evaluate their words and behaviors in absolute terms, or think of saying “If that were me…”, remember, you’re looking at it through your own set of distortions. To some extent, we all are actors in Rashomon.

16 Responses

  1. Judith Henry

    So many good points in this article, Stan. I found, particularly as a six-year caregiver with two siblings, that everyone was coming from a different place in the family hierarchy, had received different messages (growing up) from our parents, and viewed their contribution to Mom and Dad’s care in very different ways. That made for quite a stew, but understanding this, albeit after the fact, did allow me to let go of the acrimony that was a large part of this experience.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for your kind words Judith. Unfortunately many people believe their view of events is the correct one. They don’t understand that what we see and hear are perceptions, colored by our history. Sometimes, as you experienced, the “stew” isn’t resolvable, but provides the map for navigating a difficult terrain.

      Reply
  2. jane Price Lieberman

    Nothing particularly profound to offer other than you (and those who are wise enough to share their comments with you) should be on everyone’s daily reading list. We might all breathe a little easier, be a bit kinder… calmer … accepting… and loving. Maybe we CAN actually change this troubled world one Stan Goldberg read at a time!

    Thank you, Stan. You pay it forward with your thoughtful insight every time!

    Continued good health to you for the New Year!
    j

    Reply
  3. barb f

    I am currently working on just such avenues of perception in my life with MS. My first thoughts are that perception is most definitely subject to past input, but I do not believe it is a permanent filter. In practicing the evaluation of my own habitual responses I have discovered that by separating the incoming data by as soft a touch as a breath can short circuit the habit and start me on the road of making more deliberate and reasoned responses. The key for me came when I realized that change occurs only if and when I choose to change my response. I have no capacity to change the way someone else perceives a situation. That was a huge insight, followed by the idea that since the habitual responses I tended to use on some sort of auto pilot were nothing more than actions I myself allowed to keep repeating themselves with my acquiescence, I decided I could try to replace the old unworkable ones. One by one I have addressed these reactions with more appropriate responses where I am able. It is a life’s work surely, but well worth it. I find that my ability to actually be content in situations that used to drive me to the edge of frustration and anger is the result of taking charge of what is mine to control and leaving others to do their own inner work. Saying I would never recover from a death is a self-fulfiling prophecy. Grieving is a process, but it is not a life sentence. No one except the person grieving determines the value of such prolonged suffering. The choice to experience an event fully is considered healthy in most circumstances, but fueling the fires of despondency may resond better to treatment than continued practice of the same actions leading to the same dissatisfying results. My MS will not go away, just like the loss of a loved one. I can focus on what I can dio instead of what I cannot. In the death of my dearest friend I have learned after many years to love the memories and let go of the physical loss of their presence.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Those are very wise words Barb. The only thing I would add (and it would have made the article to long) is that often when there is a loss that was a significant part of a person’s life, instead of focusing on replacing it exactly (e.g., one partner for another,etc.) it becomes more fruitful to search for something that can replicate the emotion that was lost. For me that was playing the shakahachi (Japanese bamboo flute) when I was no longer physically able to flyfish by myself in the wilderness.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  4. Luke Vorstermans

    Hi Stan,

    Nicely delivered… as usual! We’d like to think we’re so intelligent and can separate the ‘facts’ from the ‘fiction'(the emotions). Lawyers play this game with considerable skill and we’ve landed up with a justice system that’s devoid of common sense.
    But we all play the same game… trying to leverage the information of the past (which is conditioned by the past before it!) and present it as ‘real time’ information.
    The chord of our history — personal and collective — weaves it way through all we say and do. And the pain and suffering has considerably more clout than the good times (why is that?).

    The adage, ‘history repeats itself’ is easily understood. But the challenge is: can we stop doing that and create something new?

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Luke,

      Thanks for the kind words and the observation that we need to stop doing what we have been doing, and try something new. I’ll address that in a future article.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  5. Pat

    Hi Stan –
    Another great one! Several years ago I heard that reality is like two people sitting in the front seats of a car. While both are looking ahead, their view will always be different, unique to where they are.
    Take care,
    Pat
    P.S. Did you check out Breaths That Count by Deena Hoagland. I think you will like it.

    Reply
  6. Carmen Lee

    You are so wise, Stan! I am in awe of people that continue to grow. I know many who put themselves in a tight-fitting box and stay the same year after year. (I’m sure you do, too.)

    Yes, I can see that we need and do use our past experiences in most of our life decisions and our opinions and outlook.

    I began this anti-stigma program in 1990 because of having a clinical psychotic depression that required over 20 years of hospitalizations (developed into catatonia). I have been well for many years and the Stamp Out Stigma (SOS) program has delivered well over 2,000 public presentations to date to: schools of nursing and medicine, suicide prevention centers, graduate classes in psychopathology, civic clubs, police departments, high schools, and anywhere else we can dispel and myths and stereotypes surrounding having a mental health diagnosis.

    I also lost a brother and his son to suicide, so what I am doing feels right and is right. If we can take something that has been so difficult and painful and change it around into a positive force for change, then it’s not all wasted.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Carmen,

      Thanks for your kind words. You obviously have much first-hand experience on how we carry our history with us, but aren’t necessarily completely constricted by it.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply

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