Look after your mind.

What’s in a Name? Part 2.

The mathematician and Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that ‘we think in generalities but we live in detail’. That ‘but’ is a subtle hint that thinking in generalities has its disadvantages.

Generalities, or generalisations, provide a useful shorthand that makes communication quicker and easier. If I say ‘crowds of holidaymakers flocked to the seaside’ then ‘crowds’, ‘holidaymakers’ and even ‘seaside’ are generalisations insofar as I offer no further details about what’s going on in my mind. All the thoughts, memories and feelings lying behind the sentence are known in linguistics as the deep structure of thought, while the sentence itself is called the surface structure.


Another potential disadvantage of generalising is that whoever I’m speaking to will interpret what I say and possibly misinterpret my words. When I talk about my holiday I have a detailed picture in my mind, but whoever I’m talking to will create their own scenario. This is harmless enough in the holiday example but misinterpreting someone’s words can lead to problems.

My hypnotherapy tutor David Lesser was well aware of this: whenever he delivered a lecture he placed a sign beside him which said ‘I am responsible for what I say, but not for what you hear’. Bearing this in mind can help to prevent misunderstandings before they happen.

Danger:negative emotional charges.

Perhaps the greatest danger of thinking in generalities is when they carry a strong negative emotional charge. I have a friend who says he ‘hates BMW drivers’, and without thinking can fly into a rage if he notices someone in a BMW driving in a way that he doesn’t like or sometimes even if he just notices a BMW! I have often wondered how our relationship would change if I swapped my little VW UP for a BMW 4×4 with tinted windows and a personalised number plate (he hates those too).

Browsing have-your-say comments on news websites throws up many examples of generalisations potentially packed with negative emotion. Just dipping in to today’s offerings for a few minutes brought up; anti-vaxxers, baby boomers (or more scathingly, just ‘boomers’), millennials, immigrants, fat cats, wrinklies and others. Let me emphasise that these terms did not appear in the news articles themselves but in individuals’ comments about them.

Be aware.

For me an important way of looking after my mind is simply to become more aware of what my mind is doing. If I catch myself making a generalisation, even to myself, I can question it, qualify it and if necessary correct it.  Steve Bowkett