[caption id=”attachment_4080” align=”alignright” width=”300”] “Tube” by pfig, used under a CC license.[/caption] Honestly, if you’re not reading Cracked frequently you’re missing out on some of the most insightful writing on the Internet. For a sample read 5 Ways You Don’t Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain, which takes the linkbait humor-list genre and turns it into a layperson’s guide to Joseph Campbell and the power of story to shape how we see the world.
The larger point of that article is that we are not nearly as scientific and rational as we think. We live in worlds of stories, both stories we listen to and the stories we create ourselves to interpret the world around us. Facts, data, and science are all important, of course, but humans are really good about taking what they know and trying to stretch it to cover what they don’t. Give us three data points and we’ll try to guess the next ten.
The mass of stories we see through and use to interpret the world can be called a lot of things depending on what you want to say about it. “Myth,” “paradigm,” or “bias” are common ways of characterizing this. My favorite term is “reality tunnel.” It’s easier to hang a story off of that than it is “paradigm.”
Real tunnels help you to make forward progress through something otherwise impenetrable, but they limit your motion and what you can see. “Reality tunnels” do something similar – they help you understand the massive amount of information tossed your way, but they also shape how you are going to respond to that information and make it difficult for you understand parts of reality that don’t fit in your path.
Without the real tunnel, you have many potential options but no forward motion; without the reality tunnel, you have all the information but no way to make a conclusion about any of it.
So. You can have Christian reality tunnels, American reality tunnels, and female reality tunnels. Project manager tunnels and line-worker tunnels. Really, all different kinds of tunnels. And even though we can talk about reality tunnels in groups, they are highly individual. They are made up of the experiences we’ve had, and the stories that swirl around us.
You can change tunnels – both yours and someone else’s. Small changes can be made through new experiences, new education, persuasion, and conversation. Big changes are also possible through epiphanies, revelations, and conversions. When we learn to look at the world a little differently, we’ve changed the contours of our reality tunnel.
When someone is speaking nonsense to us – making arguments we don’t understand, interpreting data in ways that seem wacky to us – that’s an indication that their tunnel is just very, very different than ours. These I think of as “alternate reality tunnels.” They take a great deal of effort to understand and there’s almost no hope of constructive discussion between these tunnels. They don’t converge enough. Neither party hears nor understands what the other person is saying.
So perhaps this is a weird idea, but I’ve been living with it for several years now and I’ve found it a very useful story. It explains why people are so hard to persuade with data, how two people can have the same experience but radically different interpretations of what happened. It explains why the Right and the Left bicker constantly and make no progress. Why political ads lie and push emotional buttons rather than giving “just the facts.” It explains the culture wars.
And it’s contributed to my own epiphany. As the English Academic in me wants to put it, it’s helped me “come to terms with the inevitable collapse of the dialectic and the necessity of rhetoric as a pragmatic, if not ideal, substitution.”
Is it useful for other people? I think so. But two things make it difficult to embrace this idea and make it uncomfortable.
First, you have to be able to acknowledge that your own understanding has blind spots. That you might, in fact, be wrong about a thing or two. That what you think is rational and sensible might actually be insane from another perspective, and there’s no guarantee that the tunnel you’re in is any closer to the Truth than anyone else’s.
Second, it means the loss of certainty means more second-guessing. You can’t dismiss people as rapidly for having “crazy” ideas. You have to gut-check and reality-check your own assumptions. Some reality tunnels are quite narrow but they are very “fast,” that is, they provide a lot of ready answers. Once you see your own tunnel for what it is, though, you really have to slow way down.
For my part I am now heavily invested in this story. I don’t know if it will help anyone else. I do know, from visiting other people’s reality tunnels, that this one has to look like insanity. Rick Warren would surely not approve. No doubt C.S. Lewis would think I’d gone off the deep end. If you’ve made it this far, what do you think?