The Greatest Mental Shift You can Make and How to Achieve it.
Reading time: 7 minutes 44 seconds
On a cold January morning in 2007, the musician stood in the L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington DC, his violin doing its best to grab the attention of the bustling commuters marching past. He had strategically placed himself at the mezzanine level near the kiosks during the morning rush hour.
Maybe it was the imperfect acoustics. Maybe because it was Friday rush hour. But he seemed invisible to them. More than one thousand people had walked by and all that sat in the violin case he lay in front of him was a measly 32 bucks. Less than a dozen people had actually stopped to listen. The silence between songs, devoid of applause, was the toughest part.
Just three days earlier, the very same musician got a standing ovation from 2500 people at his concert in the Boston Symphony Hall. Many paid hundreds of dollars to listen to him play. He was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest violinists.
The Washington Post orchestrated this, now-famous, experiment, exploring the relationship between musical taste and perception. The aim was to answer the question: if people don’t expect it, would the beauty of incredible music break through their consciousness? *
Inside and Outside
This story reveals an incredible understanding of human perception: our experiences are less about what is happening outside of us and more about what is happening inside of us.
Put differently: we don’t experience the world as it is. We experience the world through the filters of our expectations, emotions, and the stories we construct about our surroundings.
Understanding this and implementing a strategy to leverage it is one of the most important changes you can possibly make and can have huge implications for how you live your life.
How did so many people fail to notice? What was happening in the brains of the passers-by who ignored Bell?
How Emotions are constructed
The brain is a guessing machine. – Lisa Feldman Barrett
Your brain’s job is to keep you alive. To do this, it makes predictions as to what is going to happen next. These predictions determine what goes on inside your mind and inside your body. It results in emotions.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist and author of ‘How Emotions are Made’ and ‘Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain’, has discovered that emotions are not these fixed experiences that happen to us, rather we construct emotions.
Our brain takes in information from the outside world through our senses. It makes guesses as to what is going on.
It interprets information as to what’s happening inside the body through the process of interoception. It guesses there too.
It also searches our memories, concepts, and categories to understand what is happening so it can make the best possible prediction.
Based on these three sources of information, the brain makes guesses as to what is happening and what we should do.
So you make guesses at two levels:
First, what you are perceiving (inside and outside).
Second, what it means.
While the first guess is often outside of your scope of influence, the second guess about what your experience means is something you can adjust.
You can do this by changing the expectations you have, the emotions you are feeling, and the stories that you tell yourself about what is happening.
Expectations, Emotions, and Stories
What you expect plays a large part in determining how you feel. Your expectation is a belief about what is going to happen. It influences your predictions. Our brain does what it can to make the world fit with our expectations.
The folks that walked past Joshua Bell were in a world of their own. They didn’t have the context of a sold-out concert hall to tip them as to what they were witnessing. They were not expecting greatness in the subway station and so they didn’t notice it.
Occasionally, a passer-by would pause, captured by the music but then continue on after explaining away to themselves the insignificance of the moment.
The stories that you tell yourself determine how you explain what is going on around you and what you pay attention to. The sound of Bell’s violin competed with iPods of the time and the cacophony of inner narratives of 1097 people planning for their day. People were too busy with their own worlds and didn’t feel like stopping to listen.
What you feel also matters in impacting how we see the world. Lisa Feldman Barrett popularized the concept known as ‘Affective Realism’. Affect is the term that describes feelings we have in our bodies. It is measured in terms of valence (positive vs negative) and arousal (high vs low energy). Affective realism suggests that our affect influences the way we perceive the world. So we experience the world not how ‘it is’ but how ‘we feel’.
As human beings, we like to believe that we are always objective and are witnessing what is really going on. Philosophers over the years from Aristotle to Ayn Rand have suggested that there exists an objective reality that we can understand by using reason. It’s more complicated than that. The extensive research done by Feldman Barrett has shown that our subjective experience of reality is very much influenced by how we are feeling at the time.
Indeed, this idea makes sense when you consider the feeling of being Hangry (angry when you are hungry), or Tangry (snapping at people when you are tired), or what I call Tanxious (anxious when you haven’t slept well). What goes on inside our body impacts how we perceive the meaning of events in our environment.
Effectively, we are experiencing reality through the lens of our feelings.
The Power of Mindfulness
Professor Ellen Langer used the term Mindfulness (not to be confused with the Jon Kabat-Zinn version of Mindfulness) to describe the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and remaining open to new perspectives.
Such an approach to the world can certainly help to reduce the reliance we have on the stories we are telling ourselves about what’s happening and provide us with a means to challenge the assumptions or expectations that can dictate what we look for.
There was one example of someone demonstrating mindfulness in this experiment. Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, had seen Bell perform at the Library of Congress three weeks prior. As she walked by she stopped. It was him.
“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington…Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking.”
Stacy put $20 in Joshua’s case, making it the largest single contribution in Bell’s violin case that day.
When you recognize that what you see is not all there is, you begin to open your mind to more possibilities. You start to see things from other people’s perspectives.
You begin understanding the world better. You find yourself enjoying experiences more. You become a constant learning machine and grow in ways you can’t imagine.
You are more resilient because you are no longer trapped in the mental anguish that limits the way you think.
Keys to Making this Mental Shift
How can we get better at this skill?
1. Practice asking the following questions whenever you are going through a challenging situation:
- What am I guessing and what do I know for sure?
- How might my feelings be influencing my perspective?
- What story am I telling myself right now and how might I be wrong?
- What could I be wrong about?
- How sure am I of what I think is going on?
- How can I look at this from other people’s perspective?
If you are arguing with someone about something, asking these questions will help resolve the argument. If you are struggling to get buy-in on an idea, going through this process will assist you in thinking more clearly about what you need to do differently.
These questions provide you with the opportunity to set down the filters of emotion, expectation, and the stories we live in so that you can think more effectively.
Questioning your beliefs and the stories you tell yourself has been a crucial skill since Socrates became known thousands of years ago for the Socratic method of asking questions to challenge ideas.
2. Actively notice new things
Langer suggests that we need to pay attention to what we are experiencing in the outside world more. We need to look at what is new and different.
So often we find ourselves stuck in automated ways of thinking and processing the world. When we stop and look for what is new and different, we get out of this automated way of thinking.
Dr. Richard Bandler also explores the importance of not allowing yourself to fall into this trap through what he calls ‘Thinking on Purpose’.**
3. Avoid Absolute Language and Over-Generalizations
One of the reasons why we build the stories and expectations that we do is because of the language that we use to describe what is happening. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Neuro-Linguistic Programming also offer plenty of strategies designed to help us avoid this kind of language.
‘E-prime’ is the name of a language invented by David Bourland where you use English without the verb ‘to be’. It forces you to be more specific and clear with how you are experiencing the world. Instead of saying ‘X is true’, you say ‘X seems true to me now’. By indexing what you are thinking, you ensure that you are more accurate.
These three steps help you to get out of automatic mode. They help prevent you from missing out on valuable information that is there. While failing to notice beauty in our surroundings is not high stakes, failing to open our minds to more possibilities is indeed one of the worst things that we are struggling with today.
Seven years later, Joshua Bell returned to Washington and performed at Washington Union Station. He was nervous beforehand, no doubt reminded of the last time in such an unfamiliar setting.
This time though they advertised the event.
People knew what to expect.
Those who went told their friends excitedly their story of going to see a violin virtuoso that day.
Joshua Bell finally got his ovation.
*An article on the experiment written by Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer prize for the piece entitled ‘Pearls Before Breakfast’.
**You can find a book by the same name ‘Thinking on Purpose’ written by Dr. Richard Bandler, Glenda Bradstock, and myself here.