Mind

The World Turned Upside Down

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJul 8, 2010 12:35 PM

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This map is not “upside down”. It looks that way to us; the sense that north is up is a deeply ingrained one. It's grim up north, Dixie is away down south. Yet this is pure convention. The earth is a sphere in space. It has a north and a south, but no up and down.

There’s a famous experiment involving four guys and a door. An unsuspecting test subject is lured into a conversation with a stranger, actually a psychologist. After a few moments, two people appear carrying a large door, and they walk right between the subject and the experimenter.

Behind the door, the experimenter swaps places with one of the door carriers, who may be quite different in voice and appearance. Most subjects don't notice the swap. Perception is lazy: whenever it can get away with it, it merely tells us that things are as we expect, rather than actually showing us stuff. We often do not really perceive things at all. Did the subject really see the first guy? The second? Either?

The inverted map makes us actually see the Earth's geography, rather than just showing us the expected "countries" and "continents". I was struck by how parochial Europe is – the whole place is little more than a frayed end of the vast Eurasian landmass, no more impressive than the one at the other end, Russia's Chukotski. Africa dominates the scene: it can no longer be written off as that poor place at the bottom.

One of the most common observations in psychotherapy of people with depression or anxiety is that they hold themselves to impossibly high standards, although they have a perfectly sensible evaluation of everyone else. Their own failures are catastrophic; other people's are minor setbacks. Other people's successes are well-deserved triumphs; their own are never good enough, flukes, they don't count.

The first step in challenging these unhelpful patterns of thought is to simply point out the double-standard: why are you such a perfectionist about yourself, when you're not when it comes to other people? The idea being to help people to think about themselves in more like healthy way they already think about others. Turn the map of yourself upside down - what do you actually see?

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