Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Seeing Is Believing, But Believing What?

Making sense of the world

But believing what?

There used to be a television program called Candid Camera. The producers would set up strange situations and record how ordinary people reacted to them. For instance, they would place a microphone and speaker in a mail box, the kind of small mail box you never see around anymore—about a foot tall. Then, when passersby tried to mail a letter, the box would talk to them—small talk, “How’re you doing? That was a big letter there. Sending it to a friend, are you?” Sometimes the box would comment on the weather. What made the program funny was that the people would enter into a conversation with the box. It did not matter that the box was too small for anyone to be inside! The box talked and that was that.

I remember a particular show where the producers had rigged up an elevator so that it slid along sideways rather than going up and down. There was a window into the elevator so it was possible to see the passengers’ facial expression as they looked out of the window at the lobby sliding by. No one reacted at all! No one looked surprised or discomforted. The elevator was going sideways, and that was that! If they were looking out that window and everyone on the other side had turned into Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, no one would have been taken aback. To see something is to believe in it, whether it makes sense or not. No one even stops to think if what they are seeing makes sense.

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In this connection, I report two puzzles—one pretty easy, the other hard.

I noticed some time ago that the parking structure that faces my office had an elevator with the usual numbers to press to go from floor to floor. Except the numbers were written out also in Braille. No one noticed these little raised dots. When I called people’s attention to these numbers, I asked them how they could be useful to anyone. Everyone said that they were for blind people, of course.

“But why would a blind person use a parking facility?” I asked.

People thinking about this question for the first time came up with a bunch of silly responses:

“Maybe the blind person was a passenger.” Or “Maybe the blind person wasn’t completely blind.”

Soon enough, they or some other more quick-witted passengers came up with the obvious reason: the face panel that controlled the elevator was standardized and intended for use in a variety of places, including office buildings. It was not designed to be used exclusively in parking garages. However, what struck me is that no one noticed or wondered about the Braille until it was called to their attention.

The second puzzle came to my attention when I was a resident at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx. The hospital was a large structure set back from the nearest street by about 100 feet. It had terraces on different floors set back at varying heights. The house staff, including me, walked back and forth through the halls of this hospital all day long.

One day, I was walking along one of the upper floors when I saw there was a traffic light—an ordinary traffic light—standing at the edge of a terraced roof.  There was no one on the roof. But the traffic light was blinking off and on in the way traffic lights do—red to green to orange and red.

When other internes and residents walked by, I stopped them and asked them why there was a traffic light on a roof. The first thing that struck me was that no one had previously noticed the traffic light--including me. When I pointed it out, no one gasped and said, “My God, what is a traffic light doing on a roof? Who could have put it there?” No, the fact that it was there was sufficient. There had to be a reason for it being there, although someone suggested, thinking aloud, that maybe someone had only stored it there for a while until they could move it to where it was supposed to  be.

I could not get anyone really interested in this question, but a few people did have theories. One person suggested it might be for traffic, which was speeding by on Pelham Parkway, a hundred feet away-- even though there was no intersection nearby, and the cars never stopped. A more popular explanation was that the light was to signal helicopters—even though it was not a bright, sky-ward pointing landing light; it was a traffic light; and there was no place for a helicopter to land anyway. Patients were brought to the hospital in the old-fashioned way—in ambulances.

I am troubled by the fact that people are inclined to accept and believe anything. However, in this case, of course, there was a perfectly reasonable explanation. It was obvious, once someone bothered to ask the nurses who worked on that floor.

Want to guess?

The rooftop opened on the Department of Physical Rehabilitation. Patients who were recovering from crippling accidents used the traffic light to practice crossing a street before the light changed, so that they would not suddenly find themselves stranded  in the middle of an intersection. (c) Fredric Neuman 2013  Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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