We look but do we really see?

I was recently asked to answer the question “If travelling due west from the UK, which state of the U.S would I arrive at?” You might think this would be a really simple question to answer, but go on give it a go… For the life of me I couldn’t think which it would be, after a few failed guesses I was told, it is Alaska.

Anyway, my point is… when we look at things, we don’t always really see them. We have seen a map a hundred times, maybe more, but we still cannot answer many seemingly simple questions about it. I came across an image that represents the issue quite nicely, while the image may not be totally accurate of everyone’s viewpoint, it certainly highlights our ignorance in looking but not really seeing. How is it that we have been looking at a map since we were in pre-school but this is still the majority view we have of the U.S. While a little concerning, it is actually pretty easy to explain.

Our brains only take in the bits they need…

If you think about it, this idea can be pretty scary, when it comes to making decisions or forming opinions the brain uses a technique called confirmation bias, selecting the information to process that agrees with our pre-formed notions – commonly known as small mindedness.

But it is important to understand that this often is not a person’s fault. Think about how many things the human brain has to process at any given moment, with new information constantly entering our minds through our ears, eyes, skin, all of which needs to be sorted and processed. The brain has to, almost instantaneously, decide if a piece of information is worth keeping and then figure out where exactly to put it. If a piece of information enters the brain that supports an existing way of thinking then this will be easy to process and store next to the already generated view point with all other similar information, new or contradictory information however, is much harder to place, and so can often be discarded. Even if new information is kept, it will not be as easy to recall as information that is part of a pre existing group.

So what? Well, it is easy to start to fell annoyed at the brain for this, but remember, it would be impossible for us to function at all if these processes did not exist to sort and compartmentalise our world view. However, I believe its our responsibility, to slow down, stop and reflect on what we are seeing, hearing and taking in at every chance, if we stop and look we might really start to see.

We need to be more aware of the things we accept and believe because ‘well that’s what everyone thinks.’ Imagine a world where we challenged the norms and questioned process. We would be able to imagine things that are seemingly unimaginable now, and approach problems in new and interesting ways.

So give it a go, next time you glance at something, take the time to really look, or you hear a piece of information that supports a view point you have, challenge it. You never know what might happen.

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