Getting a perspective on “getting a perspective”

You could be all of these people...

Holidays are great. They give you a chance to unplug. Get a perspective. So it seems fitting (now I’m just back from holiday) to jot down a few thoughts on the phenomenon of perspective itself.

Perspective is a thing we all experience. Not simply the visual phenomenon of depth perception within a wide field of view, but as a word we all use to describe ordering our memories and relating events to their causes. Perspective in that use of the word, is quite literally an attempt to find meaning about the world we live in by looking for patterns within our own memories.

But the way you remember things is a practical decision making tool for situations you encounter in the future. It’s got nothing whatsoever with recording reality the way a photo or a video might capture real events. Which means, there is no perspective, it’s really just your brain tricking you into re-writing some of your memories to change the way you remember events in your past to help you make better choices in the future. Mashed turnips (you’ll see why I wrote that in a moment).

Let’s test this “brain trick” idea

Let’s put that concept into perspective. (See what I did there?) These exact words you are reading now are creating a new memory, which consequently modifies the memory of what I just wrote in the paragraph above, and in doing so alters its meaning, not on the screen, but inside your brain.

If you now re-read the bold paragraph that starts “But the way…” and read back to this point, you’ll notice something strange has happened. The same words you read first time now convey a slightly different meaning. Not massively different, but different despite being exactly the same words.

That’s one memory being modified by a subsequent memory. This is a cascading memory effect and happens all the time. It’s what makes memories useful.

What is “neeps” when referred to as a side dish for Haggis? And there it is again.

Recognition is easier than Recall

If our memories didn’t work this way, we couldn’t learn anything because learning isn’t simple matter of data in – data out, learning is all about recognising relationships and patterns, and you couldn’t recognise a pattern without being able to overwrite your memory. Look at it like this (very over-simplified example):

Memory A) I experience an unpleasant sensation called hunger when I haven’t eaten for a few hours.
Memory B) I wake up feeling hungry and so I start the day by eating a meal.
Memory C) This morning meal is called breakfast.
Decision D) I will buy more milk and cheerios today because I’ve run out.

All of those statements are true. Relating them to each other means taking Memory A and modifying it with Memory B, creating Memory C which influences me to make Decision D.

What we’re seeing here is a simplified view of how we learn, and how the memories we create whilst learning influence our decision making. It’s a process sometimes referred to as “induction – deduction”.

However, Decision D doesn’t require me to remember that eating makes the sensation of hunger go away (Memory A) or the fact I wake up hungry in the morning and fix that by starting the day with a meal (Memory B). Instead, my brain has overwritten those memories it with another one, namely the fact I eat breakfast (Memory C) every day, so therefore I make Decision D (because I’ve run out of breakfast cereal and milk).

Memory A and Memory B have been modified by Memory C in a cascade. Now, Memory A and Memory B are redundant. I don’t need them anymore, because I’ve got a more useful memory that helps me make choices based on a daily routine – which is, of course, pattern recognition, something our brains and very good at.

Now here’s the interesting thing about recognition being easier than recall: If someone asked me to explain why people eat breakfast and I tell them it’s because people wake up hungry and to make the sensation go away they start the day with a meal… it might appear like I’m recalling Memories A and B, but I don’t have to.

What my brain is actually doing is recognising the relationship between eating and hunger. It’s recognition, not recall. I don’t need to remember Memories A and B, I can reconstruct them. All I need to remember is what breakfast is (Memory C).

You see, our brains don’t try to remember everything we’ve ever learned (which would be impossible), instead, they use an edited set of memories and our ability to recognise patterns to work stuff out on the fly which we used to remember, but have really forgotten.

Which means, oddly, that a lot of the things you think you’re remembering aren’t memories, they are actually deductions. They are reconstructed ideas, things you’ve actually forgotten and overwritten with new memories that enable you to work things out. It’s a kind of data compression, a bit like the way a computer can make a big image smaller by only keeping a record of how the 1s and 0s that make the image are arranged. It’s the memory equivalent of a .Zip file, or shorthand.

In the branch of science known as Human Computer Interaction (HCI) this is very well established, it’s the principle behind user-friendly controls for machines and computers. For example, if you have a Mac, you’ll know deleting a file is as simple as dragging it into the little trash can in the corner of the screen. This is a great example of recognition being easier than recall, because you don’t need to remember how to delete a file, all you need to do is recognise the relationship between a waste bin and waste. So although you might think you’re remembering how to delete a file on your computer, you’re not, you’re just working it out from another memory entirely, the one that remembers what a waste bin is for.

Pretty much everything you do relies (at a very basic level) on this same kind of learning/processing mechanic, and forgetting stuff. It also has created a lot of experimental data that suggests we all reconstruct memories, which means something slightly more disconcerting, that we all suffer from a problem called “memory distortion”: the tendency to create false memories (read more about that here).

The holiday perspective

So when you take a well earned break, what happens? Your brain starts piecing together your memories into a narrative of your recent past. That narrative effectively rewrites the past. It does two things, which a psychologist friend of mine recently summed up very well and I’d like to use here:

1) When we review our memories, we naturally sequence events into a timeline. This seems logical but often invents a sense of causality (one thing leading to another) when in fact, those events might have no influence on each other, but because they happened one after another, appear to be connected.

2) Depending on our mood at the time we’re creating a perspective, we allow our emotional state to influence how we value events. If you’re feeling positive, you’ll attribute very different values to your own personal role in events than if you’re feeling down. So good memories turn people into heroes and helpers, bad memories into villains and victims. Neither is an accurate description of the person in the memory (including yourself) but a merging of what you experienced at the time and how you’re feeling when you’re remembering the event.

Interestingly, what that means is the perspective you gain on holiday is usually positive and makes you feel refreshed (because when you’re on holiday you tend to be feeling positive and relaxed). By the same token the perspective you gain before you go on holiday (and are tired and stressed) is negative and makes you think “I need a holiday”. You are, in fact, remembering the same events, but reaching distinctly different conclusions about what they mean depending on how you’re feeling emotionally when you do the remembering. Neuroscience has shown memory lives in the same part of the brain as your emotions do, so it makes sense that they probably influence one another in this way.

It is, cognitively speaking, the definition of “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” or perhaps even “same shit, different day”.

Both scenarios above are additionally influenced by the effects of memory distortion, reconstructed memories and pattern recognition. Basically, you’re not remembering anything objectively, you’re mixing your memories together in combinations to suit your mood, a bit like taking eggs, flour, butter and sugar and choosing to make a sponge cake one day, pancakes the next and cookies the day after that. Your memories are the ingredients, your brain is an oven, your hindsight, opinion, beliefs (etc) are what you cook with them.

In the scheme of things…

When you think about events using popular phrases to describe getting a perspective like “in the scheme of things” or “at the end of the day” or “when it’s all said and done” what you’re really doing is editing your own memories into a story based on your emotional state. As you become increasingly removed from the events by the passage of time, your perspective changes.

It also means we can look back at years of our lives and feel they were the best, the worst, productive or wasted, but as we make new memories and time passes, decide (without even realising we’re doing it) that in fact they weren’t any of those things. You might even forget them entirely. The saying goes “hindsight is a wonderful thing” but cognitively speaking, hindsight is a story we tell ourselves about events that we’ve reconstructed to suit our mood.

Getting a perspective is, really, a cognitive process akin to telling stories. It’s a creative writing exercise. It is the equivalent of a dramatisation of real events. That’s a sobering thought, because in your head, your perspective is like a documentary, but in terms of what actually happened to you, it could just as easily be James Cameron’s Pearl Harbour movie.

Now at this point, you might understandably feel a bit lost. How can you trust your brain? It’s selling you a ludicrous Hollywood screen adaptation of events, in which you might very well be played by Ben Affleck (and nobody, except possibly Cuba Gooding Jnr – wants that, do they?)

Don’t panic: your brain knows best

It turns out our sense of reality is really just a matter of perspective (not least according to Quantum Theory) and as a result your brain could easily have you living in your own private fantasy land… except it has a failsafe mechanism to help you stay rooted in reality: Doubt.

Yes, doubts and insecurities are actually a useful failsafe because on some level, we recognise that our perspective of the recent past will change in ways we can’t anticipate with 100% certainty, so as a result, somewhere in the back of our minds we know we can’t rely on what we think we know to be real, or the patterns we think we can see are really there… without a little double checking. Our doubts make us reconsider our conclusions and check our pattern recognition.

What happens then is more of the same recognition over recall. We look for events, recognise relationships and work out if what we think is right. Whilst our conclusions aren’t always 100% right, they’re never 100% wrong either. If you can recognise your own mental state at the same time, you can tune this process to be more accurate. The process of trying to compensate for your own tendency to distort memory in this way is called Mindfulness. Increasingly, we’re seeing Mindfulness cropping up in life and business, not just as a therapeutic psychological tool, but as a business tool as well. Compensating for cognitive bias, emotional influences and memory distortion is important but not a new idea, it’s how meditation, prayer, fasting (and a whole host of ancient concepts to change your mental state) evolved in ancient communities.

In fact, we’ve also built this knowledge into our common use of language. Don’t go to bed on an argument. Don’t go off half-cocked. Think before you speak. Look before you leap. Don’t shoot the messenger. Revenge is a dish best served cold. I hate Mondays. Right time, right place… (et cetera, ad nauseum). We have a lot of folk wisdom which reminds us to check our emotional state before we invest in our perspective and act accordingly.


Just a trick of the mind?

Ultimately, what getting a perspective does is help you identify the things you want to change and the things you want to keep in your life. It’s a critical evaluation of the now, but it presents itself as a story from your past. Perspective is a decision making tool.

It’s no different from ordering your dinner off a menu, picking out a shirt from your wardrobe or closing a deal at work. It uses all the same critical faculties, but rather than using your awareness of the present, it uses your awareness of the past to do it.

Just don’t take it too seriously as anything more than that, and perspective is a wonderful thing. Place too much importance on the events of yesterday, last week, last year, last decade and then you’re just telling yourself stories.

That’s difficult to accept. So here’s one last mental trick.


(Not really, just messing with your memory).