Fresh from making mud pies, Paul and I were coated in dirt from our elbows to our fingertips. We walked into the kitchen to clean up for lunch, where we found Rafe leaning against the wall, shaking, and crying uncontrollably. His face, wet with tears, was red, and a line of drool hung from his open mouth.
I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine anything that could make Rafe cry. He was powerful; twice my size, and twice my age, he was the first older boy I had ever been associated with. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
He mumbled incoherently, so I asked, “Are you hurt?”
Just then, Frank, the brother between Paul and Rafe, walked into the room. “He isn’t hurt. He said a bad word, and Mother washed his mouth out.”
As a four year old, I couldn’t conceive of what that meant. I didn’t know what a bad word was, nor had I heard of having your mouth washed out. But, from the look on Rafe’s face I knew it must be horrible and I was terribly frightened. A moment later, their mother, my Aunt Doris, came in and herded Paul and I over to the sink to wash our hands.
A few days later, I was watching Aunt Doris clean the bathroom. On the counter I saw a beautiful glass bottle filled with a bright turquoise-blue liquid. Thinking it might be something delightful to drink, I pointed to it and asked, “What is that?”
“Mouthwash,” she replied.
I ran out of the room screaming. My worldview didn’t yet include breath freshening rinse; and so something called mouthwash could - in my mind - only be a poison for punishing boys until they cried.
We interpret the world with what we know until we learn otherwise, or find evidence to the contrary. Sometimes our minds change the actual things we see to match our worldview. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve proof-read something I’ve written only to completely miss errors that seem glaring when someone else finds them. My mind reads it the way I think I wrote it. (The cure comes by reading it aloud; I seldom miss errors that way.)
How often does our mind do this? Apparently a lot according to an experiment titled: Perceptions of Incongruity that was conducted at Harvard in 1949. Test subjects were shown normal playing cards and asked to name the cards by number and suit. After showing those cards several times, the experimenters introduced some anomalous cards into the mix - black hearts and diamonds, red spades and clubs. Remarkably, the test subjects did not notice the change. Their brains would “autocorrect” and identify black hearts as spades or as if it were a red heart, and so forth with the other cards.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the German writer observed: “We see only what we know.” It makes me wonder what else in the world we are not seeing that is right in front of us. I’ve heard stories of isolated native peoples, who have never been exposed to modern technology, being shown photographs. The natives could not make sense of the two dimensional pictures, even those taken of things they knew. I also recall hearing of Pacific islanders who could not see the big sailing ships of the early world explorers when first exposed to them. At best, some saw the sails as large white birds.
Last weekend, I saw the 1998 movie Pleasantville for the first time. It’s about a teenage boy named David who loves the simple times depicted in a 1950's sitcom that is filmed in black and white. He is given a magic television remote control which sucks him and his sister into the sitcom. Even though they are now living in Pleasantville, everything remains in black and white. The people of the town have a very narrow and uniform worldview. Overtime, as David and his sister interact with the 1950's people and share 1990's values with them, it causes disruptions. The exposure to new ideas, expands the knowledge/understanding of the citizens of Pleasantville, and in turn causes some parts of the town to become visible in color.
It was this movie that got me thinking about the concept known as perceptual blindness. Also known as inattentional blindness, it is a phenomenon in which we miss conspicuous events or hold an incorrect perception or memory of events or objects that were in plain sight. All of which is kind of damning for eye-witness accounts.
This makes me wonder what else are we missing, not seeing, because we don’t have the worldview in which to perceive it? How often do our rigid social, political, or religious beliefs prevent us from seeing alternatives that are obvious to others?
In my presentations on innovation and creativity, I point out that the best way to find these hidden connections - these new opportunities - is to increase the diversity of our knowledge. Epiphanies are more likely to emerge when we expose ourselves to divergent viewpoints and to as many new experiences as possible.
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist/speaker and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of ...and Never Coming Back, a psychological thriller-novel about a motion picture director; The Annoying Ghost Kid, a humorous children's book about dealing with a bully; and the inspirational book: Wisdom in the Weirdest Places. For more information on Robert, please visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.