Pick a traveler or group of travelers and make up a story.
Recently I was at the airport dropping off a friend who was going on a relaxing vacation to Mexico. As I looked around at the various travelers, a curious questioning part of my mind took over and I played a quick game of “What’s their story?”
Many of us have played this fantasy game at one time or another, but for those who haven’t, it goes something like this: pick a traveler or group of traveler’s and make up a story of why they’re here and where they might be going based on their dress, baggage and other traveling related objects they might be carrying.
But that’s not what my curious mind really had in store for me. No, what was deeply incubating was a way to describe a common mental habit we all employ routinely, the practice of heuristics.
Long before our young brains develop the ability to remember and describe our experiences, referred to as episodic memory, we begin building heuristic models of how we see and relate to the world.
These automatic processes become a large part of how we engage with our family, our environment and the world at large. However, as we grow older and our brain further develops, conscious awareness arises and we also develop the ability to question these unconscious processes. Questioning what we think we know can morph and evolve our minds, unfortunately if opportunities or curiosity are unavailable or stunted these forces remain as the primary source of our pain and pleasure drives, either way heuristics remain a major part of our decision making abilities and occur primarily outside of our everyday awareness.
Let’s try looking at it this way, what are the images and sensations that come to mind when you hear the phrase “welfare queen” or describe the movie “Wolf of Wall Street?” How do you feel? What comes to mind? No matter what comes up for you, each is a demonstration of a heuristic, a mental shortcut that creates an image, sometimes multiple images, that generate an emotional perception.
Going shopping, whether for food or a new outfit can say a lot about us and by us I mean you and me, we the collective perceivers of others, not the shoppers so much.
Who among us hasn’t seen an image of a typified WalMart shopper, dressed in all their glory exposing themselves to the world in what many would consider less than favorable attire. Another side of this is when we find ourselves browsing through one fashion magazine or another admiring or bemoaning the current fashion trends. Many of our current social trends from gun control, equality of marriage, poverty, separation of church and state are based in these heuristical beliefs which is why they often sound terribly irrational… they are.
The generalities of heuristics create these shortcuts in our thinking and actions that influence us every day and can have an overall impact on our moods as well.
Don’t feel alone in this as it a basic brain process that we all share and are usually only aware of in a way that shows up kind of sideways. Often we don’t really notice these generalizations unless someone points our attitude out to us, and to be honest that doesn’t really happen often because most of the time the people we hang out with, associate with and live with share the same or similar perceptual shortcuts.
Another way to become aware of these shortcuts in perception is to notice how we feel when we are in a new environment or hanging out with new friends or friends we haven’t spent much time with lately. This is a time when we tend to be more cautious of how we express ourselves, but why does this happen? Most often it happens because there is uncertainty as to whether our companions will share our way of looking at the outside world.
We question whether they will identify with the way we operate in a given environment or not. If they do we may become closer and if not we tend to create distance in the way we relate. We gravitate to like minded others and avoid those we feel are different in order to feel free to be “our self.”
This is the space that most of us live in in today’s culture.
It is also one of the primary causes of xenophobia, a fear of differences that keeps us separate and divided. It is the rejection of diversity that limits openness, personal, social and cultural growth. Rather than being curious about the traveler and their journey, why they are here, where they are going and is that someplace worth the trip.
Often we mock, ridicule and demean other travelers we encounter simply because they are not like us, if we even notice them at all. Try to remember this the next time you become upset or frustrated with the behavior of another…
…we are all travelers here, trying to enjoy the trip.
It is the heuristics we identify with that are at the root of attachment (our attachment to how things should be) and it is these same attachments that are the heart of suffering.
It is only when we step outside of our everyday shortcuts of thinking that we begin to truly live rather than simply existing. Opening up to curiosity is the first step to living a fully authentic human existence. May your journey find you well.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: elephant archives