Your mind creates your reality

Shortly before Valentine’s Day, I took a lovely long walk in the woods. As I stepped out, I was playing with the notion of romantic love and how I feel about the natural world: ‘I love yew!’ I smiled at my silly pun and then forgot all about it. Hours later, I found myself on a familiar path; I’ve walked there many times every season. I typically wander along at a gentle pace, enjoying the changing cycles of nature and marvelling at the trees, plants and fungi. Then, I suddenly noticed a distinctive tree I hadn’t ever seen before. I was puzzled at first: How had I missed something so obvious? I realised I’d probably looked at this tree many times before but hadn’t seen it until now.

heart shape on tree bark

This heart-shaped stood out so clearly on the bark that I was amazed I’d never noticed it. Then, I recalled an insight I often share with clients: we see what we’re looking for

Our senses pick up far more data than the conscious mind can process, so we have a filter system that cuts out the noise. Have you ever been at a party and suddenly heard your name amidst the babble of chatter? That’s the Reticular Activating System (RAS) at work. When I was learning to drive, it seemed like there were ‘L’ plates everywhere! It’s not that there was a sudden surge in people learning to drive: My RAS had been set to filter for ‘L’ plates because that was significant for me. At the start of my nature walk, I’d mentally ‘set’ heart shapes as important, and although I’d forgotten about Valentine’s Day, by the time I saw this particular tree, my RAS picked up the pattern.

We see what we’re looking for

A little later, I stopped to read an information board. It told me that the field in the near distance had been seeded with wildflowers and would develop into a meadow over time. I stood for a little while looking out over the muddy ground, imagining how wonderful it would look in the Summer. When I returned to the path to continue my walk, I noticed a figure in the middle distance looking out over the same view. I saw that they had one hand held up near their eyes, and I wondered if they were holding binoculars. What were they looking at?

A few steps later, the reality dawned: It wasn’t a person but the roots of a fallen tree! My perceptual error is a simple example of what psychology calls ‘priming’ which is when a specific stimulus primes us to behave in a particular way shortly afterwards. I’d been looking at the meadow, so I was primed to notice others doing the same. Our minds are naturally inclined to see human shapes and faces – even when they aren’t there. This explains pareidolia – our tendency to see faces in the patterns on things like trees and stones.

Both of the examples I’ve given illustrate my main point: We see what we look for. Crucially, this is an unconscious process, always structuring your perception of reality. This is related to the idea that ‘We see the world and things not as they are but as we are’. Anaïs Nin and Steven Covey used this quote. Still, its origin is obscure, with the Talmud and Immanuel Kant cited as the source. You might be curious about who you think said it first. While your answer may not be accurate, it will certainly tell you something about yourself.