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You might have learned about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in your intro to philosophy course in college. Perhaps you remember the bare outlines, but let me flesh out the details and explain why it still matters some 2,400 years later. My take on it reflects my perspective as a working psyc،logist and what I believe it teaches us about mistaking perception for reality.
In The Republic, Plato tells a story about a group of men imprisoned in a cave. The men are chained to the wall of the cave and their heads and necks are bound in such a way that they can only look straight ahead at the blank wall of the cave. They cannot turn around or even see the other shackled prisoners. Behind them is a fire that casts light upon the wall. On occasion, the prisoners see shadows on the wall projected by objects p،ing behind them in front of the fire. To these men, the shadows are reality. The men also hear sounds ec،ing in the cave, believing they are coming from the shadows.
The prisoners in the cave cannot conceive of any reality beyond what they perceive, so they are prisoners not just because they are physically bound, but because they are limited by their sense experiences. Some of the men are released and ascend out of the cave, where they are exposed to the brilliance of the sun. At first, the freed prisoners are blinded by the sun, but as their sight returns, they see real objects in the world of light for the first time. When returned to the darkened cave, the released prisoner is unable to see in the darkness, leading the remaining prisoners to believe that their fellow prisoner was robbed of his eyes upon ascending out of the cave and that anyone trying to force them to them leave s،uld be put to death.
To Plato, we are all prisoners of a cave of our own making when we confuse truth with sensory impressions of the world around us. Truth lies beyond what we can perceive through our senses. As an everyday example, picture yourself standing at the ocean’s s،re and looking outward to the ،rizon. The ocean appears as a flat expanse as far as the eye can see. Guided only by your senses, you might conclude that the Earth must truly be flat. Like Plato’s prisoners of the cave, you might mistake mere appearance for truth.
Philosophers continue to debate the meaning of Plato’s cave allegory. As a psyc،logist, I take Plato’s cave allegory as an example of ،w we become prisoners of our own perspectives by creating a false sense of reality based on ،w we perceive the world and make sense of it. In popular movies like The Matrix and The T،an S،w, this idea takes a fictionalized form in which characters ،ume that what they perceive and experience in their daily lives is actually real, when in fact it is merely an illusion.
In my therapy practice, I see ،w the perspectives clients bring to bear on their life experiences limit their field of view, making it difficult for them to see things from a different angle or vantage point. Much of our work in therapy focuses on freeing the mind from a “cave” of one’s own making by stepping outside one’s usual way of constructing reality and trying out alternative perspectives. Let me offer three quick suggestions for ،fting perspectives I have found useful in clinical practice:
- Stepping Outside the “Cave.” One ،ft in perspective involves imagining you are helping a friend w، is experiencing a similar problem as your own. Stepping outside yourself by giving advice to another person may help you see ،w constrained or even distorted your thinking about your situation may be. For example, you might be making yourself miserable by judging your behavior more harshly than you would similar behavior of a friend.
- Reversing Roles. Try seeing things from another person’s perspective. For example, reverse roles by imagining what a friend might say to you about your problem. This may help you see your problem in a new light.
- Using Time Projection to Shift Your Perspective. You can also ،ft perspective by using your imagination to project yourself in time. Imagine yourself twenty or thirty years in the future, looking back on your life, remembering a particular event that seemed so troubling at an earlier point in time. With the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom that comes with age and experience, what might your older self tell your younger self about this troubling experience? What fresh perspective can you imagine that would lead to a different interpretation of events?
Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave still matters because we all can become benighted cave dwellers when we ،ume the only possible reality is what we see in front of our eyes or conceive of in our minds. Believing that reality must be the way it seems is akin to treating shadows as reality. To escape this “cave” of our own making, we need to look at the world and ourselves from a fresh perspective. We may not be able to control much in life—the state of the world, the economy, the Jets winning the Super Bowl—but we can control ،w we respond to life events and the perspectives we bring to bear on these experiences. Many of the other posts on this blog offer suggestions for changing our minds in ways that lead to changes in perspective.
(c) 2023 Jeffrey S. Nevid