The Science Behind Seeing Life Differently


In “Why some people find exercise harder than others” (TEDxNewYork · Filmed Nov 2014), social psychologist Emily Balcetis presents on the intersection of vision science and motivation. I was fascinated by her points, in particular how our physical perception can be separate from our mental interpretation, and how changing this perception can also change our mental interpretations in measurable ways.

In this blog post, I ask the question, can these ideas be applied to perceptions of self and our motivations to change our self?

What do we actually “see”?

In her presentation, Balcetis shows a photo of a person expressing some emotion. Whatever emotion it was doesn’t matter, since when people were asked what emotion this individual was expressing, the answers came back all over the place.  Confusion. Discomfort. Apprehension. Pity.  This experiment was conducted to show that, despite having the same physical experience (viewing a photo), we come up with different interpretations.

“Perception is subjective. What we think we see is actually filtered through our own mind’s eye.” – Balcetis

Yes. We bring our baggage to other people and situations we encounter.  This subjective interpretation also translates to how we encounter our selves.  Our mind’s eye gives us a different story of ourselves, even from moment to moment. There are times I can only see what is “wrong” about me or what I “should” be. And sometimes I can see the happiness and progress I’ve made in my life.

So what does this have to do with vision science?

The importance of thumbs

To understand how our minds work, we must first understand how our eyes work.  Vision scientists, Balcetis states, say that we can only see the equivalent of an area of an outstretched thumb. Everything else around it is blurry.

“What we can see with great sharpness and clarity and accuracy [is relatively small]… It is our mind that helps us fill in that gap.” – Balcetis

Does this also apply to our own perception of self?  Can we only actually “see” a portion of ourselves at any one time, wherever our focus tends to be?

When at a wedding reception yesterday, at a table filled with kindly faces all closely familiar with each other, my friend Matt* shared a story about his amusement when his girlfriend Brittany (seated to his right) wasn’t able to solve a puzzle which he thought to be easy. She interjected, “Oh, hah, you all know me – I’m caring and happy and wheeooo,”  circling her finger in the air. Wheeooo?  “Flighty. Not smart,” she confessed, with unabashed sincerity. To which our good friend Rachel was first to exclaim “Brittany! You speak seven languages. Seven! None of us can do that.”

“What is it about what one person is thinking and feeling that lends them to see the world in an entirely different way? And does that even matter?” – Balcetis

Brittany was focused on her experience, her outstretched thumb directed at the story Matt just shared, and all the clever, fascinating, observant traits about her were blurry. Then Rachel brought the focus elsewhere, to paint a fuller picture, and I hope that Brittany felt better.  Brittany’s authentic experience was changed, but still as authentic.

The experiment

“Our mind’s eye might work against us.” – Balcetis

Balcetis cites a study where scientists first measure how people who are “fit” physically interpret physical challenge versus people who were “unfit.” They measured how “easy” or how “difficult” that challenge was perceived to be based on that individual’s motivation to achieve that challenge. They asked some of the participants to focus on the end goal, letting everything else go blurry. Then they analyzed how any of this may have affected the results.

The subjects were asked to carry 15% of their body weight across a finish line.  Those who were fit saw the finish line as closer, and arguable easier. However, those who had more motivation to fulfill the task, who focused on the task, performed better at actually completing this task.

“Our bodies and our mind work in tandem to change how we see the world around us.” – Balcetis

This idea of focusing on the end goal, purposefully letting everything else go blurry, reminds me of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a whole other topic that should have its own dedicated post. Succinctly it is an active attention on your thoughts and a choosing of how to recognize those thoughts. This mental recognition affects our physical experience.

Eyes on the prize

In this experiment, the participants who focused on the end goal had better results in getting to that end goal.  I wonder though, if the “prize” I’m looking at was negative in nature, would that mean that it is closer to me and easier to attain?  If I held thoughts of feeling incapable, undesirable, and unproductive would be in focus, would I feel emotionally closer to those traits, and the positive thoughts in a different direction would seem difficulty and maybe even blurred out of possibility?

It is in my power, it is in our power, to refocus attention. Turn your head and choose the goal you want to spend your energy on, or even just choose what vision to which you want to feel less distant. It can change your results. It’s certainly something to think about.

I will leave off with these fantastically optimistic words from Balcetis on how we can apply this line of thinking:

“We can teach ourselves to see [life] differently, and when we find a way to make the world look nicer and easier, it might actually become so.”

And a bonus quote, because it’s overall great advice:

“We might see our world in a different way, and sometimes that might not line up with reality, but it doesn’t mean that one of us is right and one of us is wrong.”


View Emily Balcetis, TEDxNewYork



*Names always changed. The clarity of the story matters in this case, not the documentation of the individual.

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