Our brains are constantly seeking ways to manage information overload both through limiting the amount of stimuli we are willing to notice and through creating categories into which to fit things. Both sensory information limits and categories help our brains be efficient.
To define a category we choose, consciously or unconsciously, a limited set of criteria to describe the category. The criteria we choose are based on any number of things, including experience, acquired information and emotional responses.
As an example, we generally create a category for men and a category for women. When I see a mature male human being, I recognize him as a man because he conforms to my set of criteria for men. Putting the person I meet in the category for men is efficient for my brain because it saves me time and energy. I look at him quickly and I recognize he matches my criteria for my category for men and I put him in it.
An object or person we see might fall into a number of different categories that cross over. Let’s say I have a category called “elegant person.” This category will have its own criteria, among them might be: style of dress, cleanliness, self-assured behavior, courteous demeanor, type of locations he or she frequents, etc. etc. If the person in front of me is male, this person could be measured against both the criteria for men and the criteria for elegant person. And once the criteria are established, the measurements will be virtually instantaneous, for the most part happening below my level of immediate attention. If he fits both, I now recognize him as an elegant man.
When we measure against our criteria in order to put something or someone into a category, what exactly are we measuring? Do we list all the things this person has in common with our criteria and total up the similarities, emphasizing our commonalities? Actually no. To determine who does and does not fit into our categories, we look for the number of significant differences from our criteria, not the number of similarities.
Studies of cognition, decision-making and narrative psychology teach us that our brains use discrepancies as the basis of making category decisions. We see what’s different first. If there are a significant number of differences, the person is deemed not to fit in our category.
Now let’s look at a category we might label “smart person”. The criteria for this category might include such things as quickness and thoughtfulness of verbal response to my questions, gestures that match the meaning of the words spoken, the alertness and focus of the eyes, the posture the person takes when listening, the pauses, etc. etc.
All of this categorization and measurement seems straightforward, but how does it limit us? What happens when something significantly changes the way another person looks or acts? How do we respond? People I know who are injured or ill look or act differently. When they do, they are measured by the way the inclusion in all categories is measured. They are measured by the way they deviate from the criteria of the category.
If the injury or an illness results in not being able to coordinate gestures, speak clearly or at all, focus the eyes, and hold an upright posture, this person now exhibits significant deviations from the smart person category. Have they suddenly become less smart? No.
Many people with brain injuries experience some communication difficulty, problems with articulating words or significantly slurred speech. Thinking and intelligence may very well not be impaired. But communicating is. And yet so many times a person with this type of injury is seen as slow witted and incapable of serious thought. The ability to communicate is not necessarily tied to the ability to think.
When we don’t know that our brains make categories and don’t understand how we measure whether or not something or someone fits into our categories, we run the risk of misjudging what we are encountering. It’s like looking at an iceberg.
We see part of the iceberg. We ignore the rest. If the visible part of the iceberg is damaged, we may assume the whole iceberg is damaged. Rather than assume, it is helpful for us to take a deep breath, slow down, remember there is more and look for what else we might know. We can choose to direct our attention and open our hearts and minds so we can see more than differences.
Our response to someone is critical to her wellbeing. If I am sick or injured, I am most likely questioning my own abilities, wondering if I will be recognized and accepted for who I am rather than how I appear. A reaction from another person that I no longer fit into his smart person category, when my challenges are movement, short term confusion and communication, can be really injurious and painful to me. I want reassurance, not rejection.
When we see someone who appears different, we can remember the iceberg, recognize that our brains focus on what’s wrong, not what’s right, limiting what we see in order to be efficient. Then we can choose to redirect our attention to see more deeply. We might expand our own limits if we do.