Seeing Beyond the Lens

We interpret the world through the lens of our own life experience.

We interpret the world through the lens of our own life experience. Click To Tweet

This is a good thing, because it means that we learn from what we’ve lived and use that information to understand what’s happening and make increasingly wise decisions.

It’s also a bad thing, because it means we assume that everyone around us originated at the same baseline – the one we started at. And no one on this planet started at exactly the same place we did or followed the same trajectory we did.

Everyone has a different baseline.

Everyone has a different baseline Click To Tweet

For example, in Western culture, eye contact is a sign of respect and attention. Before we go to a job interview, we read advice to, “look the interviewer in the eye and maintain good eye contact throughout the discussion”. In theory, this will make the interviewer trust us, see us as confident and respectful.

Unless, of course, the interviewer is from a culture where eye contact is viewed as rude and disrespectful, such as certain Eastern and African cultures. Or the interviewer may be on the autism spectrum and find eye contact incredibly uncomfortable and repulsive.

How do you react if someone avoids eye contact during a conversation? Do you assume the person is ignoring you or being impolite? Do you label them ‘weird’, ‘stupid’, or ‘crazy’? If you know the person well enough, your interpretation of their behaviour could be correct, because it’s based on lifelong observation and social conditioning. But what if you don’t know them that well? What if you’re engaging with a stranger? This is when your personal lens could be warping your view rather than enhancing it.

What about those suffering from a mental illness? Take schizophrenia, for example. What is the common stereotype, the one that we see in TV shows or movies? Usually, it’s a person talking to themselves, paranoid that the government is after them, possibly acting in unpredictable or even violent ways. Your reaction is to label them ‘insane’ and avoid.

But what if you understood why they act that way? Do you know what causes some of the symptoms of schizophrenia?

One of the conditions associated with schizophrenia is aberrant salience. ‘K, I know that’s a very complex term, but let’s break it down, shall we?

Salience is the importance assigned to an input. We receive tons of inputs every day: sights, sounds, speech, tastes, textures. Our brain filters through all of this input and decides what is important, or salient. Salience is usually assigned to something that has the potential for reward or punishment. Input that is not salient, such as the sound of regular traffic in the street outside, is set aside with little conscious awareness. But input that is salient, such as the sound of screeching tyres moving rapidly in your direction, causes the brain to release dopamine which motivates you to pay attention to the input and act on it.

So, information that isn’t salient or has no potential for reward or punishment? No dopamine released.

Information that is salient and requires a reaction from you to achieve the reward or avoid the punishment? Dopamine released.

In this way, we are not overwhelmed by too much input, but are able to identify information that affects us personally and requires action.

Here is where the schizophrenic brain runs into difficulties. Dopamine is released excessively and illogically. Every input with the slightest potential for reward or punishment is assigned salience. The senses are sharpened. There is a sense of overwhelming significance in every experience with no understanding why. The person may see a news report and feel a strong belief that the news reporter is speaking directly to them. They may hear a song on the radio and be convinced that there is a reason that song came on at that particular time. Because there is no logical explanation for the significance, but they can’t discard the feeling of salience, they make delusional connections between the various inputs that are shouting for attention. These delusions of reference help make sense out of a senseless environment, where everything everywhere seems important.

Is this ‘crazy’ behaviour? From the outside, yes. But remember that you are at the mercy of the chemicals in your brain. If you are fortunate enough to have dopamine releasing at the intended frequency – when an input is important enough to require a response – you’ll be able to filter out the many senseless inputs directed at us every day.

But if that filter malfunctions? Every input is VERY VERY IMPORTANT, whether it’s the dog next door barking or the advert that just popped up in your browser or the droning of the air-conditioning or the sports commentator on the radio or the sudden draft against your arm or or or …

How do you know what to ignore and what to focus on? The answer is: you don’t. Because your brain is sending a big red alert at all times and who can possibly think clearly with that going on?

Now take it a step further. What about your internal stream of consciousness? You know, those thoughts that slip around your brain without you paying much attention to them.

“I need to buy cat food.”

“I can still taste the coffee I had an hour ago.”

“My phone screen needs a wipe.”

“If I had a chance to repeat that conversation with Margo I’d tell her exactly where to …”

“My ankle itches.”

“There goes that stupid dog again.”

“I’m cold; I should get a jersey.”

“He always said I was stubborn.”

“My nails are disgusting.”

“I’m disgusting.”

 

Now think about what would happen if your brain assigned strong salience to every single statement. The thoughts become loud. They’re voices in your head, shouting at you about every little thing you should be doing or shouldn’t do or have failed at. A constantly screaming, abusive bully in your mind. Do you think you might end up shouting back, telling the voices to shut up?

This is an auditory hallucination. But knowing that doesn’t make it go away. It’s confusing and unbearable. Understanding simple instructions or concepts becomes near impossible. You’re in a state of perpetual information overload. Distracted. Bewildered.

Now how do you feel about that homeless guy talking to himself and hitting his head with his hands?

You might say it’s simply a matter of taking drugs to balance out the dopamine. But sadly, medication doesn’t work that way. It can block dopamine, which reduces the feeling that everything is salient. But it does this across the board. So even things that are important produce only a mild reaction. Imagine trying to get yourself out of bed in the morning, get dressed, remember to check the weather and prepare accordingly, when the whole time your brain is saying that none of this is particularly important. No wonder it becomes difficult to be organised or hold down a job.

Don’t get me wrong – the right medication is invaluable in managing any mental illness or neurological disorder. But never think that it is a solution. It’s a coping aid – like a walking stick – but it is not a cure, and it has its limitations and drawbacks.

There are, of course, many other complex symptoms attached to schizophrenia, but the point of this article is not to go into detail about them. The point is to show that we do not all start from the same baseline. And that is the reason why we shouldn’t make assumptions about people when their actions or behaviour seem strange to us. Instead of labelling them as ‘crazy’ or ‘rude’ or ‘difficult’, remember that your lens is clouded, dented, pockmarked by your own experiences and you may not be seeing them clearly. And keep in mind that their lens is just as damaged and warped.

So how do you know how to judge someone? That’s the point. DON’T. See beyond the interpretation of your eyes. Listen. Do research. Open your mind to the terrifying realization that not everyone is like you.

See beyond the lens.

 

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