Important! Can you spot the differences?

“Information is news of difference” Gregory Bateson

the differences
Of course you can see differences, I'm interested in the differences you overlook

Two questions:

  • So how many differences can you spot between these two photos?
  • And why the hell is this important?

I’ll answer the second question first with a personal example and the first question second at the end of the article.

Some of you will already know that I hurt my shoulder a couple of years ago. You don’t need details, just to know that I have less mobility and more pain than I’d like. I have been through a number of therapies, I’ve experimented with adding and removing different exercises, including tweaks of volume and intensity.

As I write this I’m aware of general trend in the direction that I want - more mobility, more strength, less pain. I feel especially good because I’ve done some experiments today that seem to help.

However there are days, and especially nights where the opposite seems true. Nights where I can’t find a comfortable position for my shoulder, and nights where the pain keeps me awake.

It’s those nights that are important, because it’s those nights where I risk erasing large parts of the past two years. Even if the pain is not familiar I think what happens in my head will be. It goes something like this:

“Ooooow. Again. It’s still there. Shit. It’s still the same. Nothing works. I’m stuck with this.”

And so on.

Naturally this kind of self talk does not do wonders for my emotional state, and as pain science shows, being unhappy, feeling insecure makes chronic pain worse.

More importantly for the purpose of this article, this makes me discount all the days where my shoulder felt better, was more comfortable, more mobile, where I could happily hand balance, spar, climb or grapple and feel good afterwards.

This plays into confirmation bias - the tendency to only notice what goes along with established beliefs. In this case the belief is “My shoulder is screwed”.

Overall this makes me want to give up. It makes me feel helpless and it is likely to be self confirming.

You may be lucky enough never to have a had a chronic injury, but that does not mean that learning to deliberately look for difference does not have value. And because of confirmation bias there are times when you will have to deliberately choose to look for difference.  It does not always happen automatically.

For example as a martial artist it’s probably a good idea to look for differences in how you use your body.

When you train with a teacher whose skills you would like you’d better notice the difference between what you do and what the teacher does.

Obvious? Well yes, however as a teacher I see people overlook these differences every day - including things as unsubtle as having left or right foot forwards.

I can also find plenty of examples from my past of not seeing what teachers were actually doing, but seeing what I expected of them.

What are the differences between feints and attacks - or their social equivalents honesty and lies?

Another valuable source of difference is internal. Is what I’m doing different to what I think I’m doing? Video is a great tool for this, and I suspect that one reason so many people film themselves so rarely is that they find it hard to challenge their confirmation biases.

If you drill a movement and do not notice the difference between one repetition and the next then you are missing learning opportunities.

So whenever you want to deliberately change yourself or actions then harness your mind and ask yourself:

  • How is this different from before?
  • What is the difference between....?
  • What can I do that is different?
  • What else is different?

You could say that your whole capacity to be alive to the world is depends on your ability to notice difference. Need to navigate? How are the North side of trees different from the South side? How does temperature fluctuate through time and place? Or quality of light? Or humidity? All these give clues to where you are. All these make the uniqueness of each moment.

It is true that there is too much information, too much difference entering through our senses to be consciously aware of. We have to filter and ignore much of what is going on to function in life. It is where you want to learn or develop, it is when you find yourself stuck, unpleasantly surprised or confused that you need to ramp up your difference detection. 

If you are still struggling to see how this might be relevant to you? Well if you've ever had  habit that you've wanted to change, and found yourself repeating it despite your best intentions it is not a huge leap to guess that you may have said 'I'll never get this, I'm still just an xxxx/xxxxing' where xxxx is an (unkind) term for your habit.

You are constantly changing. Your body changes from moment to moment, as does your mind.  Only death is changeless (even if decay is a process). The sense that 'you' are always the same is an illusion which can keep you caught in repeating patterns. Difference detection is how to notice change, which you need to be able harness and how to steer it.

This is a big subject, you can probably think of where else it applies beyond the few examples that I have given.

To conclude, rather than telling you how many differences there are between these two photos, you may wonder what differences there are in your perception between starting to read this article and now.