The Baggage of Experience

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The difficulty is that sometimes a particular template outlives its usefulness or was based on limited experience or turns out to be too general to be of use.

Fragments and Attention

Out of all the possible things in the universe we concentrate on one tiny fragment. This may be an object, like a cupboard; an idea, like naming; a memory, such as a bus trip I took today — or anything else.

This fragment is almost always made up of other fragments. An emotion will be a cluster of sensations often with a perceived situation (from the present or the past), though an emotion can arise before we are aware of what we are responding to. We may feel moisture in our eyes and an alteration in our breathing when we think of valued friends leaving us. We may feel a boiling in our stomach and a clenching of our fists when a remark is made about us. An idea will usually consist of perceptions assembled together. The idea of a chair will have something to do with a seat and its support. A philosophical idea may be much more complex than this. An object will also have different attributes such as colour, shape, weight, texture and so on.

Our experience is the succession of these fragments which we pay attention to.

Out of all the possible stuff in the universe we pay attention only to some of it. Even in relatively simple situations (like a party) there are many things to pay attention to: the setting, the individuals, the relationships, the music (if any), the topics of conversation, the choice of drinks made by different individuals or groups, the linguistic register of the conversation, on and on — and this for a relatively simple situation.

We choose to focus on different aspects in accord with our interests, needs, past experiences, future plans and so on. If we are thirsty then the drinks are likely to stand out from the table they may sit on, if we are looking for a romantic partner we will find that particular individuals will be attractive and others unattractive. If we were traumatised by a teacher who wore her hair in a bun we may find that we react to this hairstyle on somebody else (in case you’re wondering, her name was Miss Jiah).

Our attention seems to have both voluntary and involuntary aspects. I can choose between different novels to read. And there are times when I react to a loud name, or to hearing my name spoken. We may find that our attention has fixed on something before we realise why — we may focus on the food on the table at a party and only then realise that we have that hollow sensation in our stomach.

Templates for Experience

By the time we are adults we have an enormous repertoire of experience to draw on. These are labelled by our language and used as shorthand to describe our experience. We use the label ‘alphabet’ instead of listing the twenty-six letters every time. We refer to black forest cake, biros and birds, cupboards and Carthage, proof and pies. Our range of templates is extraordinarily complex and helpful to us.

But there is a problem with templates: they refer to a kind of average or a sample of our experience. They can’t deal with the unique and specific of this moment here and now. Their usefulness is doing away with the need for this. And this is their danger — we think we know and sometimes we miss the significant detail.

We become aware of a template when something unusual happens. We may move cultures and realise that we have a template for how to greet people or how to say goodbye. (An English person who came to teach in Australia was found sitting in their classroom after school had finished for the day. When asked why they replied that someone had told them that they “Would see them later”. In Australia this phrase is just a leave-taking and doesn’t indicate the making of an appointment.)

Old Templates: Refinement or Retirement?

It is possible to refine our templates to a quite extraordinary degree. This is what expertise is about — wine connoisseurs being able to name a vineyard and year that produced a particular wine, for instance. More usually, we are able to assess in fractions of a second the mood of a friend we pass on the street.

The consequences of this process, of forming templates through which we view our experience, are extraordinarily powerful and useful. So is the process of their refinement.

The difficulty is that sometimes a particular template outlives its usefulness or was based on limited experience or turns out to be too general to be of use. An abused child may well conclude that all the people in the class of people who abused them are untrustworthy (men, women, priests, teachers, authority figures of any kind, and so on). A child who was pampered may throughout life value fitting in and following the rules prevailing in the situation they are in.

Usually we refine these templates without altering them radically. The person rewarded for performance may well find ways to take a holiday and to choose only one field to excel in. Many people choose a job or career and pursue it over decades.

Clinging

Sometimes these templates — the glasses we view our world through — need radical revision. And often enough we don’t want to make this revision.

The sharpest formulation of this process that I know is that when something isn’t working we tend to do it more — and more strongly. People can go through a series of relationships that end in the same way. People can find it difficult to learn academic subjects but stick with the same approach to learning (perhaps ably assisted by their ‘teachers’).

Sticking with our habitual ways of perceiving, understanding and behaving (our templates) can lead to a life that becomes more and more miserable or frustrated or disappointing.

Finding Guidance

How do we know when one of our ways of viewing the world needs a radical update instead of the usual refinement?

I think there are clues, like feeling frustrated or ‘here we go again’. There are times when we say to ourselves things like, “Why does this always happen to me?”

To make the revision there are resources that we can draw on, such as:

  • The experience of those who seem to have a more satisfactory experience than we do. Usually a friend or acquaintance will be able to offer some wisdom on what we find challenging.
  • There are also those whom we disagree with. Listening to those who have a viewpoint ‘opposite’ to our own can help us think through what we believe and why. We can also find that there are actually commonalities that open up fresh perspectives. For instance, those who believe that education should be the inculcation of past practise and those who believe it should be a process of self-guided discovery may find that they both agree passionately that education should prepare the student for real life.
  • There is also the second hand experience of others through books and other media. This usually can’t deal with the specifics of our situation — and usually doesn’t have the emotional impact of a face-to-face relationship, but can still be very useful.
  • There are also practices that we can pursue in private such as journalling, prayer and meditation. But when we find that they are generating the same old ideas we need to find something else to do.

I would like to hear about your experience. Have there been times in your life when you have made a major revision to how you view a part of your experience? Do you know what brought it about or was it less conscious than this? What helped you make the change? Were there things that hindered you updating your template? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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