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Searching for Significance in All the Wrong Places

We search for significance… in all the wrong places.

Significance is a sign that a given manifestation (aspect) of reality equals: ______________ (your mind fills in the blank).

Indeed, significance is an equation between something outside of you and something inside you, a moment in which a particular manifestation of reality translates into a feeling of significance and a thought of significance.

Case in point: say you have a crush on a co-worker.  As you walk past her desk, she looks up.  This moment, this manifestation of outside reality translates into a feeling of significance (your heart skips its regular beat as the sympathetic nervous system revs up in response to the possibility of sympathy) and a thought of jubilation (perhaps: “she/he likes me!”).   But, of course, so far it’s just a hypothesis – but its very fact is enough to make your heart skip a beat. 

So, what do we have here?  A co-worker looks up and you (because of your crush on her/him) interpret this as “significant,” i.e. as possibly signifying a reciprocal attraction.  In other words, another manifestation of reality has been given a subjective meaning.

An equation of meaningfulness has been drawn: this = that.  “This” is the objective reality outside of you (the co-worker looking up as you pass by).  “That” is the subjective reality inside you (the thought that “this” means that “she likes me,” with its accompanying sympathetic nervous system rpms).

Put differently, the equation of significance is the equation of the Objective and the Subjective.

This = That.  Objective = Subjective.

Another example: the objective reality of a random black cat crossing the street in front of your car = a predictive conclusion that something bad is going to happen specifically to you.  An auspicious moment – if you are superstitious.  But what if you are not?!  Then you’d conclude that a black cat crossing the street right in front of your car is “insignificant.”  But – excuse me! – where’s the epistemological difference?!  Whether we equate any given “this” to this “that” or that “that” we are still equating the objective to the subjective.

To conclude that an encounter with the black cat is either significant or insignificant is to assign a sign (a sign of significance or a sign of insignificance).  Epistemologically: it’s the same thing!

Remember Schrodinger’s cat in a box: from the stand-point of the quantum mechanics it is both dead and alive until we examine which it is, and when we do the quantum two-state reality collapses into an actual (i.e. perceived) one.  Note the parenthesis: an actual = a perceived (Objective = Subjective, This = That).  Same thing again!

Let’s extend Schrodinger’s now-classic thought experiment to the classic superstition of a black cat crossing the road:  if Schrodinger’s box is the size of Pittsburgh and I am driving my Hyundai inside and as I make the final turn onto the street where Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive, it is the encounter with my subjectivity that makes this bi-modal (dead and alive) reality reality.

The life-or-death status of Schrodinger’s cat is apparently contingent on an encounter with my mind.  Now, who is the ominous black cat in this scenario?  Who’s the actual agent of life or death – if not my mind, if not my observation, if not my perception?!  The dead-and-alive cat gets to live or to remain dead depending on how my subjectivity collapses this dead-and-alive, two-state quantum reality.

The Subjective – it appears – determines the Objective.

If the Subjective determines the Objective, then why do we seek significance outside, i.e. in all the wrong places where it (the significance) is not?

In other words, if significance, as a subjective, i.e. internal, evaluation of what’s outside is inside of us, then why do we seek it outside where it is not?

Significance, after all, is a process of assigning a sign – a process of subjective interpretation of the objective.  Thus, significance is not passively found or stumbled upon, but is actively given, i.e. assigned.  To signify is to assign a sign.  To assign a sign is to call a given “this” by the name of “that,” i.e. to equate – at least, perceptually – “this” with “that.” It’s through this this-into-that-metamorphosis that reality becomes perception and perception becomes reality.

So, here we have it, the final equation of significance or, for that matter, the equation of insignificance:

Significance = Insignificance (and, of course, vice versa).

Now: how significant is that?!  However significant you make it!

I can hear you say: ‘Nah… This is just another one of these thought experiments.” And I would say: “But what thought isn’t an experiment?”  After all, each time you exhale, you expire another experiment of your consciousness.

Searching for Significance in All the Wrong Places

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. Several of his books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the Mindfulness Project (London, UK). Somov has conducted numerous workshops on mindfulness-related topics and appeared on a number of radio programs. Somov's book website is and his practice website is

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Counseling at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somov, P. (2011). Searching for Significance in All the Wrong Places. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 12, 2018, from


Last updated: 9 Jul 2011
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Jul 2011
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