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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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chicago scientist John Cacioppo suggests that loneliness is a threat to your health

Chicago scientist John Cacioppo suggests that loneliness is a threat to your health - The Boston Globe:

In an age when social contact is defined by how many thousands of "friends" an individual has on Facebook, Americans are lonely people and getting lonelier all the time, according to John Cacioppo. Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, is co-author, with William Patrick, of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

Loneliness isn't just a matter of being alone:
Indeed, the lonely don't spend any more time by themselves than the rest of us do. Real loneliness is a feeling that some essential connection is lacking, and while social circumstances matter, it's also partly genetic.

Loneliness can cause people to settle for relationships that other people would not settle for. It can also diminish people's self-control, including their ability to stick with a task, and cause them to substitute pets and computers for human contact. Loneliness can also have physical effects. For example, Cacioppo says, lonely middle-age and older adults are less likely to exercise than are their peers with more satisfying human relationships.

The interviewer asks Cacioppo if older people are especially lonely. While it may be true that older adults' number of close contacts declines as their peers begin to die, those who manage to maintain close relationships with at least a few friends and family members generally become happier.

Asked if loneliness is a peculiarly American problem, Cacioppo replies:
Americans have more friends than Europeans on average. But what defines a friend is different in America than in Europe. In Europe, first of all, there's less mobility. There's a level of stability that we just don't know in America. But that same stability is connection, and those are threads of connection that I think lead to a definition of friends that is more high-quality.

In friendship, as in many other aspects of life, it's quality rather than quantity that counts.



Blogger Cacioppo said...

I am the Chicago scientist to whom you referred, and I just wanted to let you know I enjoyed reading your blog on the importance of perspective/point of view. The human brain is a fast, powerful, and efficient instrument for sensing, understanding, and acting on the world. Our perceptions, conscious experiences, and beliefs represent only a small fraction of the information processed by our brains.

Counter-intuitively, we are not privy to the vast workings of our own minds. Perhaps you have had the experience of walking along a path attending only to the beauty around you, then suddenly finding yourself stopping, jumping back, and looking down, heart racing, only to see a curved stick that is vaguely reminiscent of the shape of a snake. Or perhaps you’ve been at a party speaking to a friend amidst the buzz of others talking only to suddenly hear your name spoken quite clearly above the din of the crowd. These anecdotes illustrate how your brain is processing vastly more information than gains entry into your conscious experience.

As intuitively appealing as it is to understand our own minds through a self-reflective analysis of our own conscious thoughts, scientific studies have provided clear evidence that our beliefs and intuitions can be utterly misleading. It is “intuitive” that birds of a feather flock together and that opposites attract. We all know that two heads are better than one and that too many cooks spoil the broth. Although both statements in each of these pairs may be self-evident, they are internally inconsistent and therefore both cannot be true. This is what is so problematic about self-evident truths about the mind – we have a variety of ready-made labels for things after the fact, but these labels often do not predict or explain anything about how the mind actually works.

Consider the feeling of loneliness – a miserable, frightening condition that has been described in the scientific literature as a “gnawing…chronic disease without redeeming features.” Loneliness has often been treated as essentially the same thing as depression, introversion, or poor social skills. Our experimental studies and population-based research has shown these to be myths. It has also shown that loneliness provides a window into a much more interesting story of how the mind works and what it means to be human, and it has shown that one's point of view conditioned by loneliness affects what we "see" in our social world.

Loneliness signals a rupture in social connections and serves to motivate individuals to repair and maintain these connections. The failure to resolve this need is associated with significant mental and physical disorders. In essence, loneliness evolved just like hunger, thirst, or any other form of pain – as a signal to change behavior in order to avoid damage. In this case, the signal is a prompt to renew the connections we need to survive and prosper. And just like hunger or thirst, if the signal of loneliness goes unheeded it begins to take a serious toll on mind and biology and becomes increasingly difficult to overcome. Unlike hunger or thirst, however, our folk theories of the mind place such a stigma on loneliness that people do not know how to properly respond. If hunger were similarly stigmatized, the prevalence of anorexia might well be higher than it is.

This is why it is so important to understand, and take control, of the perspective (or point of view) one has on the world. It affects to what we attend and about what we think, that is, consciousness itself.

John Cacioppo, author of "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection"

October 5, 2008 7:53 PM  

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