Misconceptions

The other day I was driving in the car with my 3-year-old son. The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas by They Might Be Giants was playing on the radio. Heavy on the guitar and lead vocals, the tune is a science lesson in pop song form. This line blared out – “But even when it’s out of sight/The sun shines night and day” – and my son piped up from the back seat, “Does the sun really shine night and day, mama?” Being 3, he is full of questions, eager to make his own sense of how the world works.

“Mmhmm,” I replied, somewhat absent-mindedly. “We see the sun during the day, but not at night, because our part of the Earth is turned away from it.”

I never know quite what level of information to provide, but as a former science teacher I usually try to err on the side of accuracy. He was quiet for a moment, which, given his typical nonstop stream of chatter, means that he’s trying to figure something out. “Mama?” he called out quizzically from the backseat.

“Yes, sir?”

“I think that the rain clouds just tip the Earth away from the sun, and that’s what makes it dark at night.”

“Oh,” I replied, at a loss for how to respond to his hypothesis, which was perfectly reasoned out within his own frame of logic. I could hear him trying to piece together what I’d told him in the past about why it’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer in our locale with the newly received information about the sun’s 24/7 incandescence.

“I see how that makes sense for you,” was what I finally settled on, knowing full well that any attempts to correct him would fall on deaf ears at best, and indignant ones at worst. At 3, he almost feels defined some days by his absolute insistence on his view of the world. Usually it seems best not to argue.

The whole encounter got me thinking about the idea of misconceptions and how easily they might be generated and then propagated. In science education, the notion of correcting misconceptions about how the world works is often central to the curriculum, whether explicitly or implicitly. It’s really easy to come up with faulty ideas about things like physics and chemistry, especially because these topics are strongly based on conceptual, symbolic knowledge, which is not easy to come by before one’s prefrontal cortex has sufficiently developed. Educational research has demonstrated that it takes repeated, persistent correction of misconceptions for the “true” ideas to actually stick.

Of course, misconceptions are no less prevalent in intrapsychic and interpersonal realms. Perhaps this seems like a no-brainer. After all, cognitive therapists spend the bulk of their time helping clients to increase their awareness of, and change, faulty thinking patterns. In some ways, these so-called irrational thoughts might be seen as simple or complex misconceptions about one’s self, relationships, worldview, the future, and so on. As most therapists can attest, these misconceptions are no less persistent than, say, a belief that we “suck” liquids through straws (inhaling through the straw creates lower pressure within the straw; higher atmospheric pressure pushes the liquid into the straw, in case you were wondering).

In fact, I’d say that misconceptions we hold about ourselves and others are more persistent than beliefs about the physical world. Most people don’t attach a lot of emotion to the reasons hurricanes form, but they can easily get caught up in a tsunami of feeling about their self-worth or the aftermath of an affair. In my own view of the therapy process (which may or may not be misconceived!), I therefore find attention to thoughts and feelings to be critical. You can’t change the thought without changing the feeling. Which comes first isn’t all that important, but it is important to consider people in their entirety – thoughts, feelings, behaviors, beliefs – and how it is that these came into being in the first place.

When we can start seeing our misconceptions for what they are – outdated, ill-informed beliefs – we can begin the process of aligning experience with a version of reality that is more closely aligned with living lives of our own choosing. Instead of living life based on the realities that have been handed down or picked up unnecessarily along the roadside, we can move forward knowing that we are seeing clearly, unencumbered by misconceptions.

I guess this means that at some point I’m going to need to tell my son that rain clouds don’t tip the earth, huh?

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