Break Free From Your Mental Prisons

Close your eyes and envision a long, narrow hallway. There are paintings on the walls. Each painting — each image — corresponds to your mental image of what something “is.”

Your painting for “apple” will probably look similar to my painting for an apple. As we walk down the hallway and approach the images that represent abstract ideas — love, truth, beauty, god — our paintings begin to differ.

Let’s take a concrete example: When you walk past the painting that represents “philosopher,” what do you see? Do you see an older man with a tortured, agitated, slightly melancholic look on his face? Is he sitting alone at a desk, his hand running through his hair? This is the typical image of the hardcore, deep thinking-philsopher type.

Society, culture, language — all the sociological forces — passes down this image to budding, potential philosophers. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But why can’t philosophers be collaborative and eager and optimistic? In fact, many of them are!

Let’s take another abstract idea, “education.” What do you see? Are you sitting at a desk? Are there teachers who exercise authority over students? What does your painting of “creativity” look like? What does your painting of “success” look like? What does your painting of “family” look like? It doesn’t have to include DNA.

This all seems obvious — that’s exactly why these mental images are so sneaky. First, they silently shape your thoughts. Second, the images parasitize your beliefs. Finally, they command your behavior.

You’re still walking down the hallway. But now you have a palette and a paintbrush in your hands. Find the paintings that don’t look right and change them. Or, tear them down and paint something new!

These mental images aren’t inescapable prisons. We can change them for ourselves. If we like those changes, we can build things to help others make the same changes.

This is how everything from a stroller to a government is remade. It starts with you standing in a dark, narrow hallway, palette and paintbrush in hand.

Student @ Brown U. Author of NYTimes Bestseller ‘This is Me: Clickbait in My Bio.’