Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

We See What We Expect to See

Yesterday my husband and I watched the movie The Sixth Sense on one of the movie channels. Seeing this movie again reminded me of the great lesson I learned when seeing it the first time: We see what we expect to see, or what we want to see.

The first time I watched The Sixth Sense, there were little things throughout the movie that didn't seem quite right. I noticed them, but didn't dwell on them. Instead, I went on watching as if I hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. Only after the film was over did I understand the significance of those little blips on my mental radar. (I'm trying not to give too much away here, just in case there are some people who haven't yet seen the movie. If you haven't seen it, rent it and take a look. [It would be better to see it in one continuous presentation than to watch it chopped up for network broadcast in order to get the full impact.])

We see what we expect to see or what we want to see because of the way our brain organizes experience to make sense out of it. Without being aware of doing it, we impose a schema over our experience. A schema (plural: schemata) is a pattern or template that we use to interpret and understand new information that our senses perceive. When we perceive something, we automatically look for the appropriate schema into which to place it. We absorb new information into a pre-existing schema through a process known as assimilation.

But when none of our existing schemata seem able to assimilate the new information, we must change, or expand, a schema to allow it to incorporate the new information. This process is known as accommodation because we must change a schema to accommodate something new.

When we encounter something new, our brain will attempt to find a schema to assimilate it. If this attempt fails, we then have two choices: (1) we can throw out, or ignore, the new material, or (2) we can revise a schema to accommodate the new material. In most cases we will ignore the new material for as long as possible. Only when we are faced with a great amount of material we can't understand will we begin to change our schemata to accommodate it all.

This is what happened to me while watching The Sixth Sense. Perhaps if I hadn't been so intent on continuing to follow the movie, I might have figured things out sooner. But I had to keep watching, so I didn't have time to think consciously about why those little things seemed out of place.

You've probably had a similar experience at some time. Did you ever find out or figure out something, then think, "Oh, now A, B, and C all make sense"? This realization is the moment of accommodation, when your way of understanding has shifted slightly because of some new knowledge.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown