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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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Driving on Autopilot

Have you ever driven somewhere and, when you got to your destination, had no memory of the trip? It's not that you weren't paying attention. You were. And if something out-of-the-ordinary had happened, you would have been right on top of it. But as long as everything went along in an ordinary, routine manner, you were able to drive on autopilot.

In the earlier post We See What We Expect to See, I talked about schemata (which is the plural of schema), the patterns we unconsciously apply to things we perceive in order to organize and make sense out of them. The more often we apply a particular schema, the more deeply ingrained and readily accessible it becomes. Someone who is just learning to drive or is unfamiliar with the area would not have the experience I described above. Only someone who has been driving the same route for a long time will slip into autopilot.

Such automatic thinking can be harmless, sometimes even enjoyable, but it can also be dangerous. It can prevent us from learning new things, meeting new people, and finding new ways to solve old problems. A very obvious example of automatic thinking is stereotyping people on the basis of their religion, their ethnicity, or their appearance. But automatic thinking can also happen in more subtle ways that we are often not even aware of.

I used to have a friend whom I originally met in a situation where she was the instructor and I was a student. We became friends and interacted in lots of other situations, but she was never able to shake off the instructor-student schema. In her mind, she was always the instructor and I was always the student. This meant that she could never accept that I knew anything that she didn't already know, even in areas in which I had a lot of training and experience and she had none. She was never able either to adjust her schema of me as student or to apply a different schema that was more appropriate for our changed circumstances. This inflexibility of thinking strained our relationship and contributed (although it was only one of several contributing factors) to the dissolution of our friendship. Because of her rigid, automatic thinking, she lost many opportunities to learn new things. She also lost a friend.

How can we avoid becoming mired in the ruts of automatic thinking? By seeking a change of perspective. If the situation warrants, try literally looking at something from a different angle. Or try to imagine an event from someone else's point of view. Or, better yet, ask other people for their perspectives on an issue. Look for ways of approaching a problem that are as different as possible from your usual approach. Don't always grab on to the first idea or interpretation that comes to mind.

And, at least occasionally, explore a different route on your daily commute.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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