Have you ever seen one of those tweets that ask you to solve a simple arithmetic problem and then explain your mental process? Then you go through the comment section and realise there are so many ways other people arrived at the same answer that’s different from yours.
Now imagine if the subject wasn’t arithmetics. What if it was politics or ethics or religious doctrines, some issue where there isn’t even one right answer? It means you can have dozens and dozens of answers and dozens and dozens of ways through which people arrive at those conclusions.
One of humanity’s many flaws is that because we look alike — after all, we’re all highly intelligent mammalian bipeds — we either assume we think alike too or expect others to think exactly like us.
The second flaw is each of us considers ourselves to be perfectly logical. It is why stories do not only make sense when told through the eyes of the protagonist. The villain has a perfectly reasonable story, too. Things that drive him to do what he does, which, despite being morally shocking, are still completely relatable. The lion has a good story, and so does the gazelle. The Britons have a good story, and so do the Vikings.
Together, these conjectures — that we all experience the world alike and only we are logical creatures — lead us to believe that people who do not behave like us or have the same convictions are somehow below us. Or that they willed themselves away from the path of logic and morality.
The first premise that this essay is based on is that we all are not exposed to the same set of information. We meet different people. Have different conversations. Read different books. Watch different movies. We are raised in different environments and we visit different places. We enrol in different schools and are taught different subjects by different teachers using different curriculums. And all these slowly shape us into what we are. In a sense, each of us is an advanced large language intelligence model. So, whatever answers we give to any given question is based on whatever information we’ve been exposed to.
The second premise is that we experience the world differently. Even if we are, by some miracle, exposed to the same data over a long period of time, we do not analyse the information the same way. Yes, we all know the mind works in mysterious ways, but do we appreciate to what extent?
Now, it might be quite a stretch, but I’ll give some examples I’ve recently run into that show how differently our minds work.
Weeks ago, I was listening to this episode of the Damn Interesting podcast (you can listen from 18:20), and they mentioned a sure damn interesting fact about how humans perceive their environments. Of course, I’ve always known that our memories can’t be trusted much. You see a blurry image, and when you squint your eyes, it suddenly becomes a familiar image of Van Gogh or Jesus. It’s not magic. It’s hallucination. You hear something unclear and interpret it using your vocabulary or the languages you’ve mastered.
I especially learned this from PSY284 (Social Psychology of Law) as a sophomore at the university. We learnt about schemas and biases and all the things that can affect a witness’s accurate recollection of a crime scene. But apparently, we may even be underestimating our tendency to hallucinate based on our preconceived notions of the world.
The podcast cited a study by the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience that showed: “When we watch someone else perform an action, it doesn’t just light up the visual cortex of our brain, it also lights up the parietal and [?] region, which means we are not just seeing something, we are also inherently remembering and associating what it felt like when we’ve done that action ourselves in the past.”
In essence, we see what we expect to see, especially with normal everyday events. You can read more about that study here.
Alright, let’s go through a few more probably useful examples.
Heard of aphantasia? (Likely not because even Grammarly is underlining the word and labelling it as unknown.) It is what you call it when a person cannot visualise images in their mind. When such a person is told to close their eyes and imagine a red apple, they cannot do it in the same way most people can.
Marco Giancotti, whose mind works like this, shared more information in this Twitter thread that could help you understand the phenomenon better. “From my conversations with other aphants I’ve found that, even within this minority, there’s a lot of variation in experience. I can’t say I represent all of them,” he cautioned.
Another thing I learned about is called maladaptive daydreaming. It is when a person is prone to creating elaborate universes and plots in their mind and is immersed so much in it that it affects their professional and social lives. Again, a tweet introduced me. The person shared a video from TikTok that said, “POV: After the ninety-seventh lap around your room, the characters in your head just did something completely unscripted, altering the plot line and changing the entire story.”
It is usually a coping mechanism for people with anxiety disorders.
Even more recently, a friend shared an article with me that talked about a concept known as limerence. I had not heard of it before then.
Limerence is basically infatuation on steroids. If you’ve always wondered why people stay in abusive relationships, this may solve some of the puzzle. Someone who has limerence and is separated from their lover would usually suffer withdrawal symptoms “such as pain in the chest or abdomen, sleep disturbance, irritability, and depression”. It can also lead to a loss of appetite and strong suicidal thoughts. “You can’t understand. You don’t know what it is like in my head. It is just as bad as physical pain,” a person with this experience told me. Each time they get into a relationship, they swim and drown in it. And when they get out, they suffocate like fish displaced from water.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who are unable to form social bonds or enter into long-term romantic relationships.
What I’ve learned from these discoveries is that it is impossible to really see the world from the point of view of other people. Just as true wisdom is achieved when you embrace your ignorance, perhaps true empathy is only possible when we accept that we’re incapable of seeing the world through others’ eyes or feeling it through their skin. We can only try but can never truly understand what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes, let alone their minds. Even if a person gives you their pair of shoes to put on, they won’t pinch in the same places or in the same way.
Recent studies have even established that just as no two fingerprints are the same, our brains are physically wired in unique ways such that if you were involved in a road accident and your brain was the only organ that survived without damage, it could likely be used to identify you. Our experiences literally shape our brains, and in return, our brains shape our experiences.
The sovereignty of our minds is so strong as to render them impenetrable even by the most advanced machines. It is why one of the most contentious philosophical debates is whether animals have a consciousness like humans and whether robots might one day have one as well. What even does it mean when we say a person is conscious or sentient? Is artificial intelligence eternally constrained within the bounds of mimicry, or will it eventually grow a mind of its own?
The mind is like a walled castle. We interact with other minds through a small window in this castle. Through that window, we express our needs and emotions. Through it, we perceive the needs and emotions of others. We may move our worlds close to each other. We may poke out our heads or hold hands through those tiny windows. But we can never tear down the walls to behold the entire breadth of other castles. We don’t know what creatures roam the streets. We don’t know how fertile the soil is. We can’t feel the freshness or stuffiness of the air. We can only guess from the little glimpse that window will let us have.
The general idea is: do not normalise your version of the world as the only one that’s valid or possible.
A lot of factors are involved. Tons of research have found links between genetics and social behaviour. Carrying certain genes or having a certain amount of certain enzymes can predispose you to certain behaviours: impulsiveness, aggression, etc. There are also environmental factors, such as a person’s upbringing, the community they are raised in, the parenting approach of their father, mother, or guardian, the belief systems they are indoctrinated with, the circles they socialise with, and so on. Even the language a person speaks and the culture they identify with determine a lot about them. One study found surprising distinctions in people whose languages are genderless or whose languages ascribe different genders to the same objects. In trying to understand the far-reaching role culture plays, all you have to do is read Malcolm Gladwell’s cockpit culture theory in his book Outliers. (There have been counterarguments, but I think the main idea still holds water in this context).
I don’t know if any of this makes sense, but I guess what I’m trying to say is: cut people some slack and stop using your standards to judge them. We all experience the world differently and so are bound to react to it differently as well.
What you consider to be the perfectly reasonable response in a scenario may not be perfectly reasonable to some other person. Even our abilities to act per our perception of normalcy vary.
In all of this, I am not advocating for people to be let off the hook when they act unfairly to others just because “they are different”. Again, in quoting something I saw on social media recently (Instagram this time), “trauma explains bad behaviour; it doesn’t excuse it”.
A person may be genetically predisposed to commit violent crimes, but that doesn’t mean they should still not be punished (or at least rehabilitated in some way). A person may be abusive in a relationship because of some terrible thing they experienced as a child, but that is no reason for you to stay with them at your own expense. We must still look out for ourselves, and we must still prioritise the interests of society (or the majority) over the interests of the individual (or the few).
But as we do that, we should still try to understand why people act the way they act while reminding ourselves that it is futile to think we can perfectly understand why people act the way they do. Give people room to be different.
If you hate a person so much, consider the fact that you might easily have turned out like them if you had the same culture and ancestry and brain tapestry and social network and upbringing and were exposed to the same pieces of the world — having in mind that we have little or no control over any of these things. Maybe then you would hate them a bit less.