Trompe l'oeil

When running, you will sometimes come to a path that, for whatever reason, is difficult to read. While the incline may go up, your eye and, subsequently your mind, says it’s going down. Such visual tricks are called trompe l’oeils, literally “trick of the eye” in French.

Personally, these tricks often have the effect of letting me run harder uphill than I otherwise would, revealing the incredible amount of mental power that goes into distance running. If my mind does not believe I’m going uphill, I run faster, even if I am in fact going uphill. Most people would consider this a cool trick to get you to run faster. Unless you didn’t want to run faster.

In a race, such tricks would be welcome. I am going all-out, pushing myself to the limit to achieve a personal record, or, in rare cases, to actually win the race outright. But in training, such exertions are often unwelcome. Outside of races, pushing yourself as hard as you can go is generally frowned upon. There is no use destroying your capacity to run tomorrow with a hard training run today. Training theory says you should lay down a base of solid, slower running, and save faster, max-heartrate runs for the occasional intense workout.

This, it occurs to me, is a perfect analogy for how we use our ability to reason, and to conversely to simply react. Danny Kahneman would have called this fast thinking and slow thinking. You would expect that in most cases, having a “gut feeling” about something would be great. But in practice, such impulsive decision making often gets us into trouble. Our slow thinking – our ability to reason – ought to be a our base, slow training thinking. This sort of thinking prepares us for moments where we need our fast thinking, or our reactionary thought.

This has sweeping implications for all sorts of personal interactions. I’m quite interested in how this plays into Nate Walker’s ideas of “moral imagination” and radical empathy. You see, most of us are actually not every good at empathyzing. Sympathy comes naturally to a great many people. We can imagine the pain, or anger someone is feeling when we are in the presence of it. But empathy asks us not just to feel someone’s emotional state, but to understand them.

The problem, as I see it, is that, like with running, there are trompe l’oeils all around us. Places where we think we understand why someone is acting the way they are.

“She’s just pissed because I forgot to call last night.”

“He’s still frustrated because he didn’t have time to get coffee this morning”

On the face of it, those very well might be true. Or they might not. When do we know we’re running hard up hill? In most places in life, this is completely unimportant to quickly address someone’s emotional state. Far more important is to be patient, and understanding without necessarily assuming that we can know right now what’s bothering someone, or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

“She struggles with abandonment issues since her father left when she was 8, and while you didn’t call, what upset her most was feeling alone.”

“He was up really late last night stressing about work that was supposed to be done. Not getting cofffee made things worse, but were hardly what cause his foul mood.”

In both of these cases, there are underlying mental states. It requires imagination and trust in our fellow humans to truly empathize in these circumstances. While the road appeared to go down hill, and we were all into bombing down it, the reality is that we burned ourselves out on a training run that tricked us into going up hill. We would have been better served to hold our judgment for a little longer, and asked more questions, and listened more closely. Rarely do we need to exercise empathy quickly, and applying Walker’s “moral imagination” can get us a lot closer to understanding a lot more people, and making all our lives a lot easier.