The article “Implications of the differences between our perceptual and conceptual views” in the June 2016 issue of the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology & Neuroscience explores the two major ways people process information and make decisions. Though this might sound like a dry topic, research into these yielded Daniel Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics –“for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment….” As a result, though, we better understand human decision-making and the so-called “cognitive biases”– the mind-boggling ways in which our thinking doesn’t align with our actions. We also now know that one of these ways relates to the attentive, diligent, clear-knowing equanimity, that describes the type of information processing that occurs through “mindfulness” (Purser & Millio, 2014).
The research into cognitive biases tells us we take action based on our sensory perceptual experience as much as by our thoughts. For example, college students rated their vacation on a daily basis (Wirtz, et al., 2003). When it ended, they were asked to evaluate its entirety and whether they would want to repeat it. The results showed students based their intention to repeat the vacation mainly on their rating at the time of the last assessment, “even if the final evaluation did not accurately represent the quality of the experience that was described in the diaries” (Kahneman, 2012, p. 389). This points to a difference between how we think about the world and how we perceive it experientially. Neither is exclusively the correct way. How we decide and take action depends on which of our two information processing systems, the rational-cognitive or the experiential, dominates. Because most people have virtually no understanding of experiential information processing, fully half of how we understand, learning about and effectively using this system is important for effective navigation through life’s complex passages.
Here’s an excellent TED talk on this subject by Dr. Kahneman:
As for the rational-cognitive system, it’s how we think when using an internalized form of words and concepts. Everyone’s familiar with this. What makes our understanding of experiential processing so different, and it is surprisingly different, is that although it does not use concepts it’s equally as powerful. Not having the use of conceptual language, however, it’s been unappreciated for eons because it can’t speak up for itself. So, the rational-cognitive system has mistakenly gotten all the credit for being smart. The downside, however, is that overuse of the rational-cognitive system produces a counterproductive backlash of maladies. These tend to come in various forms of stereotypy, though there are numerous others that I’ll describe in future posts.
How bad is it? Bad. Here’s a link that shows our struggles…
Let’s consider the analogy of the blackboard and words written in chalk upon it to our mind and thoughts, respectively. On the blackboard everything can be written, from simple concepts and elaborate equations to the subtlest poetry and the most artistic of drawings. Everyone has a sense of the “words” of their thoughts but how many see the clear background of their mind, the “place” into which thoughts arise, linger and fall? It’s important to note that while the blackboard and the clear background of the mind are unlimited in their intellectual processing abilities, once words and thoughts appear, their full capabilities become constrained, no longer fully open. Many believe thoughts are the only way we “think.” Holding this erroneous opinion leads to a mind full of stressful thoughts in an attempt to conceptualize what simply cannot be categorized, which is … well everything! Seeing the error of this view, perhaps by reading this blog and reviewing the published scientific research, leads not only to stress relief but also to clear knowing and open-mindedness. Consider a bamboo tree. What defines it. Where does it end? Within the soil, the “cane” doesn’t actually end. It continuously connects with its rhizomes. So what has just happened to your concept of the word “tree?” Now ask yourself, “What’s truer?” That the concept of “tree” fits the word “bamboo” or that it is what you perceive it to be, just what it is?
During these posts, I will explore what can be called our perceptual view, our mindful, intelligent processing of the world without over-reliance on words or thoughts. I expect you will find this view strangely familiar, although confusing to a world exclusively reliant on thought. It’s my hope that you will come to understand just how mindfulness works and perhaps even consider the activity for yourself and your friends. Among the topics address in this series of blog posts will be: the origins of the placebo response, “response shift” and improvement from psychotherapy; a cause of confused thinking and decision-making; overcoming bias; the development of insightfulness and creativity; an origin of and cure for anxiety/stress; dualism/monism; embodying the perceptual view through mindfulness; and considerations for wellness/ quality of life. Listed in this way, these may seem to be topics too highfalutin to be of any practical value. But this is not true. The more deeply we understand these topics the more clearly we will see the world. Seeing the world more clearly then making better decisions benefits not only us but others as well.
Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Pashko, S. (2016). Implications of the difference between our perceptual and conceptual views. Psychology & Neuroscience, 9(2), 267-281. Link to paper.
Purser, R. & Millio, J. (2014). Mindfulness revisited: A Buddhist-based conceptualization, Journal of Management Inquiry, 1-22.
Wirtz, D., Kruger, J. Scolion, C. N., & Diener, E. (2003). What to do on spring break?Psychological Science, 14, 520–524.