Through Child’s Eyes

How to Learn to See Differently

Have you ever watched and marveled at how children see the world? Some of us adults get to see this magic first hand in the kids we know. Some of us adults, if we’re really lucky, get to re-experience it for ourselves.

Young children have very few preconceptions about their experiences, nor even the language to express these ideas. They are gleefully incapable of categorizing, labeling, judging or intellectualizing what they see.

For them, the world simply is, and everything is brand new. They respond with wide-eyed excitement and joy for anything that doesn’t cause immediate distress. If you add more human interaction, say in the form of play or storytelling, you can see them light up and beam even more.

If our goal as adults is to be happier and less stressed, maybe we can re-learn it from childhood, where it came naturally?

To see the world with ‘wide eyes’ is to be completely open, to take in everything without our usual filtering, processing, and intellectualizing; in other words: without feeling all the negative emotions we deal with daily.

As children mature, their brains reorganize. It starts simply enough. They learn the names for things, categories, pronouns and possessives. This warm loving thing is called ‘mommy.’ This other thing is a book and that one is a tree. They begin to see the world less impressionistically and now with sharper edges and conceptual boundaries. Something can’t be both a book and a tree at the same time, right? It’s only later on that they might re-experience the duality of paper books and trees.

They learn how to label and judge. Flowering trees are pretty. Dirty diapers are icky. Sweets taste good. They learn to want and expect. They remember the past and model the future to better handle their increasing scope of awareness, from within-arm’s-reach to beyond-line-of-sight and then on to yesterday and tomorrow.

They eventually learn (maybe from us…) to label and judge other people. People are not objects (most of us learn this naturally, though psychopathic personalities apparently don’t). People can be both good and bad, friend or foe, family or other, depending on the context. As children learn to systematize and contextualize, their ‘wide eyes’ narrow even further.

All of us went through this general process. We added these important layers of cognitive filtering and processing until it became mostly automatic, requiring no work, except when we want to turn it off. Our worlds are now experienced as if on autopilot, our filters and evaluators shouting-over (and crowding-out) the wide-eyed wonder we left behind.

I can see this process contrasted in my two sons. They’re both fairly clever, but the older one is autistic and still non-verbal at age 8. He can naturally express himself through basic sounds. But he’s learned to use a tablet to form sentences in a synthesized voice. He can now (mostly) ask for what he wants. He’s learning to read. We hope and work hard for his future happiness and always make sure to love and accept him everyday as he is.

What he has never learned is how to be hateful or deceptive. He still has that original innocence about him, and his laughter is pure joy. Despite his lack of expressive language, he can figure out where we’re going in the car. He’ll tell us loudly when we are going the wrong way, according to him. He’s learned to predict the future too.

Some of us learn to predict it too well. We when we model the future and our models hold true, we might start to think we know more than we really do. ‘Knowing’ can be deceptive, as it undermines that unfiltered wide-eyed view with biased suppositions and conjecture that we don’t bother to validate because they’re often good enough.

When I was about the same age as my son, I somehow figured out that my friends wanted to play with my toys more than with me. That knowledge made me angry. And that kind of extrapolation, insightful or unhelpful, has been a persistent theme of my life, in both powerful and undermining ways.

We have all known adults who are stuck reliving their own personality dramas over and over, often in clear view of everyone but them. We’ve seen narcissists, like Donald Trump, fatuously embellish themselves — ostensibly to generate love and affirmation— but create hatred and derision instead.

We’ve seen compulsively hard workers endlessly seeking approval from the bosses, who (like their parents) will always want more, thus ensuring this need can never be met this way.

Many of us have even encountered those more psychopathic personality types I mentioned earlier (hopefully in their higher functioning states). They lack real empathy, sadly, treating people as objects to dominate and control. But their behaviors ultimately cause almost everyone to shun them, to want to put them in a box or cage, no matter how charismatic or successful they try to be.

All of these circular personality traits will tend to keep their owners stuck, unless they finally tell them to shut up and do the opposite. The narcissist must learn to listen empathically. The compulsive worker must learn accept themselves. The psychopath must find and practice empathy.

As adults on autopilot, most of us tend to judge people instantly. We take seconds to appraise new people, at best days for co-workers and months for future life partners. That can’t possibly be enough. We wind up missing most of those wide-eyed details we might have seen as kids —generally seeing the best and being happy by default.

Instead, we’ve programmed ourselves to become aware of only the most novel stimuli — ads, sports, politics, crime, entertainment — often missing the joy and truth in life passing by, and making misery the default instead.

Assuming we want to be happier, it possible to get closer to what it was like as a child, without those jaded filters and self-defeating patterns?

As a thought experiment, imagine a giant water wheel...

That wheel turns through childhood and takes us through the usual steps of development, from object permanence to labeling and beyond. Turning further, it takes us into adulthood where we learn greater empathy and collaboration; to value and respect each other, to help each other meet our collective needs as a way to help meet our own needs as well.

Certainly if we experience some trauma or loss, the wheel can get stuck or regress. We may tend to relive those unfinished issues over and over, using our friends, family and co-workers as unwitting co-actors in our personal dramas — until the wheel can move again.

But what happens when the wheel turns farther?

It seems if we go far enough around, we can actually come full circle, right back to seeing with the eyes of a child.

Think about the Dalai Lama, who, despite his people’s ongoing subjugation, has a child-like giddiness we’d all love to share. I can see how much he cares about people. But he also has faith that, by consuming Tibet, China will become more like Tibet, and that this faith will, in the long-run, prevail.

Like the Dalai Lama, those who make it all the way around to those child-like eyes don’t need to lose what they learned along the way. The knowledge and awareness becomes a tool instead of a trap.

So how can you turn this wheel yourself?

I’m sure the answer is subtly different for everyone, but I’ve learned a few ideas along the way (props to Pathwise Leadership Development for much more depth and practice on these ideas) that might help some of you. They mostly boil down to understanding the layers we added along the way, and then trying to put them in the back seat:

  1. You can learn to let go of the past. Whatever pain happened to you before is hopefully not still happening now — if it is, you may want to deal with the present. It’s amazing what horrible things we do to ourselves on behalf of others who are not even present. We don’t need to do this.
  2. You can learn to let go of the future too. On the flipside, for those who have lost loved ones, we can accept the goodness we received in the past and try to let go of the loss we still feel for the future. In a broader sense, anxiety is a palpable fear of the future. The emotion made sense to increase awareness in the wilderness. But not so much lately. The future will come whether we worry about it or not. [And if you’re a planner like me, prep if it makes you feel better, and then move on.]
  3. You can become more aware of your present experience. Try to inhabit the center of your body as you encounter the stresses of the world. Focusing on your body helps you become more centered and present… This is a bit like mindfulness, but we can take it farther.
  4. You can take time to notice what you’re feeling, especially when you’re around other people, even when you’re in the thick of it. Follow #1–3 to help. There is truth in there. You may find that your judgements of others come more from your own feelings that need more attention.
  5. You can let go of your agenda. That is your ego trying to exert control. Try to get in touch with what other people really want and need and put more effort into them instead. They may do the same for you later.
  6. You can accept that everything you see and feel comes through the filter of your own personality, which is mostly there to protect you from [childhood, stuck-wheel] harm. These filters tend to narrow your child-like eyes. Work to see the filters and then see through them more clearly. This takes a lot of time and work, but it’s worth it.
  7. You can deflate the ego. Ego casts you as the center and hero of the world. Try to accept your relatively infinitesimal size and lifespan in the universe. This puts your worries and dramas into perspective and ironically lowers fear. We have so few truly important things to lose.
  8. You can feel genuine empathy for other people, one at a time if you can’t manage everyone. If you can see the world through someone else’s eyes, that naturally widens your own.
  9. You can try to stop ‘knowing’ so much and start to really accept what we don’t know, can’t know or can’t reason. Unknowing (de-intellectualizing) puts us in greater touch with the truth of other people and the world. The abilities are innate, but we added so many layers of automation on top. With practice, we can turn them off.
  10. You can look at a mere cloud or a tree or a co-worker and see an entire universe inside them. That is to say, don’t just see the label or judge the package, but see the real thing or person underneath. This can help get you in the right state of mind to see like a child for anything.

You may still, even now, feel that you left your child-like self behind you so long ago. That’s ok. But when you’re at peace and you dream, you can dream of anyone. This includes those children who still embody the spirit you think you lost. If you can just imagine being like that again then you’re more than halfway there…

We can practice being a little more child-like in our lives. It’s something I try to do every day.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” — T. S. Eliot

About the Author

Avi Bar-Zeev has close to 25 years experience in Augmented and Virtual Reality, having helped lead Disney’s VR experiences in 1994, helped design and build Google Earth, helped develop early Second Life, and helped found Microsoft’s HoloLens project in 2010. He lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife and two sons.

About Pathwise Leadership Development

Pathwise Leadership Development is a long-term development program founded by two Ph.D psychologists, designed to help participants better understand human behavior to improve interpersonal dynamics in the workplace and beyond.

Photo Credit

By Avi Bar-Zeev; Monkey Forest, Bali, 2005. Taken with a small digital camera moving about the same speed as the monkey, not photoshopped.

Design and Technology Leader (fmr. HoloLens, Apple, Google Earth, Second Life, Disney VR) Profile photo is from generated.photos (read “Who owns YOU?” for why)

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