Nov 02, 2021
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Psychiatric Times, Vol 38, Issue 11

November 5, 2021

John J. Miller, MD

(Source: https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/looking-out-my-window)

Thinking about belief systems and preferences that differ from your own? Imagine the human brain as a mansion.


When reflecting on deeply held and widely divergent belief systems and individual preferences that feel foreign and unusual to me, I am reminded of one of my favorite metaphors for our different experiences of the world. Imagine a mansion with 100 rooms, each decorated in a unique style, setting it distinctly apart from the other 99. The north side of the mansion faces an established and mature forest, the east faces a rocky and turbulent ocean shore, the west overlooks a rugged and endless mountain range, and the south stretches over a grassy expanse with wildflowers and low growing brush.

Now recognize the mansion as the human brain. At birth, the brain has infinite potential regarding the rooms in which it can spend time as it tries to understand reality. There is no limit to the number of windows out which it can look as it makes sense of its place in the physical universe. That brain is thus shaped—through the gifts of neuroplasticity and synaptogenesis—by exploring different rooms and looking out their windows at different times of the day. Through these experiences, combined with inherited genetics and life events that impose themselves into our development, each of us continues to evolve as a mind with beliefs, opinions, and characteristics that define our unique relationship to each other and the world around us.

However, despite the potential for unlimited experiences and discoveries, our human tendency is to gravitate to a single room that feels safe and familiar and to forget about the rest of the mansion. Our understanding of the world and reality is then further limited by whatever we see out our favorite window. Imagine living in a world where 7.7 billion individuals each understand themselves, relationships, values, priorities, political persuasions, and meaning of life through the room and window that they have come to believe looks out on the 1 universal truth. The final step in this exercise is to imagine that all 7.7 billion individuals appreciate and respect one another, act compassionately and kindly to all, and understand that the very beauty of the human experience is our diversity and unique wisdom.

At 62 years old, my window could use some repair. Small cracks and random smudges have obscured my view, but I still love looking at the open ocean and wonder about all the secrets and mysteries that lie below the surface. My room is very comfortable, although friends tell me I really should replace some of my overly worn and dated furniture. I try to have an open mind when speaking to a friend, neighbor, or colleague whose views are in opposition to mine, realizing their room and window are based on their unique experiences. Sometimes it is hard when the truth seems so obvious to me. Casual conversations about politics, religion, vaccines, evolution, global warming, social safety nets, taxes, and the best way to treat depression can end in heated discussions, with rhetorical guns drawn. At these times, my challenge is to invite my judging mind to take a break and ground myself in the next in-breath and out-breath, which are always patiently awaiting my return. Ah yes, in-breath and out-breath…how simple…and how this exercise reminds me of the large mansion, with all the windows and all the differences that enrich us.

Recently our Psychiatric TimesTM editorial team met with our Advisory Board, which consists of early-career psychiatrists and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners. During our engaging and fruitful meeting, I felt that visceral call to recenter myself with an in-breath and out-breath. Board members were sharing their opinions about the type and format of media that they believed would most effectively connect with our readership. Short videos (2 or 3 minutes), tweets (with the most important content written in the first 2 sentences), and other social media posts were high on the list of recommendations. I felt aversion settle in, as I do not take any of these 3 approaches, nor do I find them helpful for my own style of learning. But through my in-breath and out-breath, I glimpsed those 2 challenging roommates who often impede my learning and exploration of the mansion: I and my.

Once again, that neutral and impersonal breath had opened a door to a new room, and I realized that our Advisory Board members were sharing a gift with me, helping me understand how to best connect with the social media generation. 

In the spirit of this process, I invite you, our readers, to share with me and Psychiatric TimesTM what type of content you find most interesting, educational, and inspiring. Help me explore some rooms in the mansion that I have not visited before.


Dr Miller is medical director, Brain Health, Exeter, New Hampshire; Editor in Chief, Psychiatric TimesTM; staff psychiatrist, Seacoast Mental Health Center, Exeter; Consulting Psychiatrist, Exeter Hospital, Exeter; Consulting Psychiatrist, Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts.