Thursday Thoughts #26: Alternative Facts



Sometimes people look at the same thing and “see” something quite different from what their neighbor perceives. You may have seen the picture of the lady before and be asked what you see. Some see an old woman; some see a stylish young woman.

The science of perception found its expression in the Gestalt psychology (or Gestalt Theory) in the 1920’s and 1930’s in Germany [1]. The idea is that what we perceive is not as much a sum of individual elements in front of the eye but what the brain makes out these shapes and their proximity to each other. The brain makes out a “Gestalt” which I would translate as a figure with a meaning.

I was reminded of all this the other day when I read Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s book “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work” [2]. And that was before the entire current discussion on alternative facts ensued in the press. Interestingly, Kegan and Laskow Lahey use the drawing of the woman as the center of an exercise where one person explains to another what they see while both view the image. Some may see the young and some the old woman. Some can shift quickly between both possible interpretations. Things do get interesting when two people with opposing views try to explain to each other and convince the other person of what there is to be seen. The exercise makes the point that “people create their own reality rather than picking up one that exists out there. Interpersonal problems emerge because our reality isn’t another person’s reality.”

If in case you haven’t been able evoke both the young and old woman: If you see the young woman and want to see the older one, turn her eye into an ear and her necklace into a mouth, and her neckline into a chin. If you first see the older woman, turn her eye into an ear and her nose into a chin and jawline.

You can play with the same principle with Figure 2. Do you see chalice or two people looking at each other?

When we train medical-surgical teams in Comfort Talk we stress the ability to see the world through another person’s perspective and accept the possibility that they may perceive the same physical “reality” you share as quite different form theirs. Unless one can accept and make the connection based on the other person’s past and inner psychological needs one could dismiss countervailing opinion as deceptive or ridiculous. For example, an MRI machine may appear harmless to you but quite ominous to a person with claustrophobia. That is why reframing of unhelpful thoughts is a hallmark of Comfort Talk® process in conjunction with rapport and relaxation guidance.



  1. “Gestalt Psychology.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.
  1. Kegan R, Laskow Lahey L. How the way we talk can change the way we work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. A Wiley Imprint; 2001. 241 p.



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