The Stick Figure and The Sick Figure

I don’t read comics now but I did back when I was a kid, I collected Marvel cards instead of baseball cards and I had fun reading the comics I could afford. But I never super got into them like some people do. My favorite was Calvin and Hobbes.

Recently I heard a enthusiastic recommendation to read a book called “Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art.” by Scott McCloud. Apparently, the lessons inside the book apply much more widely than the world of comics.

And so far, I completely agree. This book is fun to read, and it’s blowing my mind.

I’m only 65 pages in, but I’ve had at least a few big “Ah Ha” moments. And here’s one of them that I think applies to everyone’s health. Mental, physical and emotional.

It’s super simple in theory, but sort of difficult to explain. The book does a great job, because, number one, it’s a very well written book, and number two, it’s graphical, it looks like a comic book and the images help you understand better.

But here’s the concept in a nut-shell.

Your face is a mask. A responsive mask. You control it like a magic video game that’s interfaced right into your brain. If you try to smile right now… go ahead and give it a try, just give it a big ‘ol smile :)

What happens? Your “mask” responds right? Your face smiles.

But here’s the trick.

*You* don’t see that smile. Not unless you’re looking in a mirror.

Other people see you smile, but from your perspective, all you have is a *feeling* of smiling, and the knowledge that you are smiling. But it’s vague. You don’t see yourself from *inside* yourself very well.

Everyone else that you look at is fleshed out, detailed, extremely realistic. But from inside of yourself, and to yourself… you are a fuzzy non-detailed thing.

You have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, ears, hair, a head, etc. Just basically the bullet points, the rough outline. You know generally if you’re smiling or frowning, if your eyebrows are up or down, where your head is turned to, etc.

And all of that can be communicated in a stick figure. Literally.

Head, eyes, mouth, hands, feet, etc.

Basically, to yourself from inside yourself, you essentially, and mentally, shortcut your entire being to a stick figure.

And comic book people know that instinctively. The more detailed they draw their comic book characters, the more they look like someone else. The less detailed they draw their comic book characters, the more *you* can identify as the character on the page.

The less detailed the character, the more you can feel like that character. The more you connect.

And that’s cool and all, but it’s also indicative of the fact that we humans are in serious need of self reflection, and self understanding.

Because the dirty little secret of comic book artists is that most people do not know themselves, they hardly know how they feel, what they’re capable of, what their limitations are, what makes them happy, and hell, even what they essentially look like to other people, therefore the stick figure.

Most of us are walking around in a glorified, zombified, stick figure sketch of our entire existence, from the emotional to the physical. We focus much more on what is outside, what other people look like, what other people do, what other people think is OK, what other adventures people are having.

When we could instead be the artist of our own being, look inward, and start fleshing out our internal stick figure representations.

And that’s super important to happiness and health.

Because as the ancient Greeks said over and over again, the essential key to life is…

“Know Thyself.”

If you are interested in participating in this type of big picture thinking, feel free to join Sean Bissell’s facebook group:


  1. Joey - April 30, 2015 5:37 pm

    Great post, Sean.

    I’ve recently been reading that imaging of the brains of people diagnosed with PTSD show atrophy in regions of the brain associated with different aspects of self-awareness. Interestingly, however, those who /had/ been diagnosed with PTSD but who are now considered recovered do not show atrophy in all the same regions. So it may be a reasonable hypothesis that the less we cultivate self awareness, the more opportunity there is for trauma and the more we cultivate self awareness, the more opportunity there is for resilience.

    But unfortunately, current trends are toward more formulaic and reductionist approaches to “healing”. Don’t eat anything but these 3 approved foods. Etc.

  2. Sean Bissell - May 4, 2015 6:17 pm

    Hey Joey,

    Thanks for the comment man! Glad you liked the article.

    That’s super interesting regarding PTSD and brain atrophy.

    It makes sense that the more self aware you are the more neural connections and density you’d develop. But I never thought about that before you said anything.

    Super interesting!


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