Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Thoughts and Beliefs Influence Perceptions -
The Evidence Mounts

If you've read some of the other pages on this site (eg. How Real Is Your Reality?), you are aware of the influence that our "mental filters" have on our experience of reality.

As I've said before, our experience isn't what's out there, it's what we perceive to be out there. Recent research has shown another aspect of this.

Psychological researchers developed a computer program that gradually morphs facial photographs from angry expressions to happy expressions. Between the extremes were neutral and ambiguous facial expressions.

They showed participants in the experiment still photographs of the neutral expressions and asked them to think of the expressions as either angry or happy.

Then the researchers showed the participants a series of photographs of the face gradually changing from angry to happy and were asked to identify the photograph they had originally seen.

Their original interpretation influenced their memory. That is, if they initially interpreted the facial expression as being happy, they were more likely to identify a photograph closer to the happier end of the spectrum than the one they had actually seen.

The opposite was true if they had originally interpreted the neutral expression as being angry.

Not only that, the participants in the study had sensors placed over their facial muscles that picked up tiny electrical signals to the muscles. This allowed the researchers to evaluate the participants own facial expressions.

They found that the participants unconsciously mimicked a subtle version of their interpretation of the original photograph when they were shown the second series of images.

If they had interpreted the neutral picture is angry, they tended to subtly activate their facial muscles associated with frowning when they were shown the photos again. If they had interpreted the original picture as happy, they activated the muscles associated with smiling.

It is of note that this facial mimicry was unconscious and automatic.

The implications of this research are very real. It suggests that our current thoughts, beliefs and interpretations influence the nature of our memory and our future experiences.

I think you can see that someone who is, for example, socially anxious would be influenced by this effect to interpret their interactions with others in a negative way even if a more accurate interpretation would be that the interaction was neutral or positive.

Of course, we all carry our own beliefs and biases around with us everyday. The point is to be aware of how these internal filters color our perception of reality and to use them in a way that serves us.

With awareness, we can have control.

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