When kids come into my office for depression or anxiety, I try to teach them about how their thoughts create their worlds. And secondly, often their thoughts are wrong.
To do this, I show them a couple of optical illusions. Optical illusions are created because our brain has to interpret what it sees, not just see it. It is the interpretation that we learn, and therefore we can unlearn. My goal is to instruct these great young people with mood disorders that all things are not what they seem. They may look upon themselves as failures, while parents and teachers see the true potential. They gaze in the mirror and see ugly when beauty is the real reflection. It is all in the mind.
One of the most famous examples of this confusion is the young-girl-old-woman drawing. According to one source, the image was first published by an anonymous German as early as 1888. So what do you see? Is it the girl or the grandmother? Interestingly, when I showed this picture to a young couple, the woman saw the maiden looking far off. Her husband's view was just the opposite. He saw the older woman. Studies show that when we had older parents or grew up with senior individuals we will be more likely to see the age in the portrait. The man was a funeral director.
So when events happen in the world, it should not be surprising to have so many unique perspectives. Nonetheless, I can't help but still be amazed how people can experience the same speech and come away with a totally different impression.
Did we not hear the identical words? Did we not witness the same event? The problem is, just as with the picture, what we bring to interpretations are our personal psychology. We drag bias wherever we go. We carry points of view like glasses projecting different impressions. It will not be until we can recognize our prejudices and preconceived notions that learning occurs.
The point is we see the world differently from the eyes of a billion different souls because everyone has his or her own personal history. It is what we carry to the picture that decides the image. We all look, even stare, at the same drawings or listen to the same message but see or hear something totally different.
Everyone knows about the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each walked away certain in his knowledge that he was right. That is to be expected. The problem is not the different opinions; the tragedy of the story was there was no collective learning from their diverse experiences. The men remained blind to the truth.
Therefore, when there is a problem of common concern there is commonly not the same conclusion. That is not the ultimate challenge, since we know seeing the same situation will bring different perspectives. Today's tragedy, like that of the tale, is the absence of communal learning.
In partisan politics, everyone goes around marching and screaming at the top of their lungs and beating drums while waving placards touting their rightness. Maybe that is where the term "self-righteous" comes from. No one realizes it is an illusion.
That is why it is fun to show patients and parents the double image. First they see the one, and then they are shown the other. They can't see both at the same time, however at least together they know there is another answer just as correct.
Collective learning does not happen without some commingling. Like atoms bouncing around in a chemical flask, reactions happen when they bump into each other. That is when new molecules are created. Learning is similar, and in fact the most learning occurs when there is the greatest distance between two opinions. In that situation, each student has to travel further from his or her original points of view, breaking prejudicial lenses. The greater the differences, the greater the learning; the greater the learning, the greater the new creation.
That is why political polar extremes can be detrimental to collective learning. It is hard for partisans to learn because they have the furthest to go. The task of true leaders is to see the different faces to a problem and then draw the others together to show them how they are right and wrong at the same time. Together they can draw a totally unique and better picture.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].