How To Think More Clearly
Working around the blind spot in your mind’s eye
If you didn’t already know that there was a blind spot in your visual field it would be hard to convince you it was there. Even after being shown how to find it, it’s still difficult to believe that anything is missing. Our brains fill in the blanks so seamlessly that we don’t notice the hole in our vision.
Our minds have a similar problem; a kind of information processing blind spot. Just as the optic nerve blocks a small patch of light from reaching our retina, our biases block certain information from being processed by our brains. Just as with our optic blind spot, our brains fill in the missing details with our beliefs, and assumptions based on what we expect to find. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to mistakes being made.
Sadly there’s no perfect solution to this. Just like our optimal blind spot, there’s no way to fill in the gap. We’ll make mistakes no matter how hard we try not to. But there are cues we can watch out for which signal that there’s something we’re missing. Sometimes these will be things we don’t particularly want to see, but having a full picture is always better than a partial one. So without further ado, here are three signs that some of the information that you’re receiving is falling into your mental “blind spot”:
You’re getting emotional
It might seem like a controversial idea in these polarised times, but information which doesn’t directly affect the wellbeing of your loved ones shouldn’t make you emotional.
Emotion is our strongest indicator of bias because it indicates a resistance or over-investment in what we’re hearing. Whether it’s love or hate, anger or rapturous agreement, emotions prevent us from seeing the object of our feelings in a clear and balanced way.
Naturally, this is also true of information. If you’re invested in believing one thing and you read something that tells you another, the natural reaction is to get irritated.
But think about this. How would you feel to talk to someone who insisted that the earth was flat? There might be a healthy amount of bemusement, and yes, eventually maybe some derision, but it’s unlikely that you’d get angry. You’re perfectly comfortable with the fact that the Earth is round. This comfort with your position is why it’s easy to keep your cool.
You’re tempted to turn it off/dismiss it completely
This is a tricky one. If I were to tell you that I’d been abducted by aliens last week, or visited by the ghost of Elvis, you’d have good reason to dismiss what I was saying out of hand. Not all information is created equal.
But if you’re tempted to tune out the information because of who saying it, or because of the doubts it casts over your beliefs, you’re probably trying to keep the information in your blind spot where it can’t bother you.
If we’re honest, most of us would admit that we don’t want to have to rethink our opinions. Reevaluating our views is difficult and time-consuming, and once we start, we can easily find huge swathes of our worldview unravelling.
But if we’re interested in finding the truth, rather than continuing to believe a particular idea, then finding someone who disagrees with us is a good thing. Either we’ll discover we’re right and strengthen our opinions, or we’ll stop wasting time believing something that isn’t true.
You find yourself zoning out.
Have you ever watched a kid when they’re being told off? It doesn’t matter if the parent is doing everything right, bringing themselves down to the child’s eye level, talking in simple language in a clear voice, that kid wants to put their attention anywhere other than on what’s being said to them. What’s being said doesn’t matter, all the kid wants is for it to be over.
We never really grow out of this when it comes to information we don’t want to hear. If you suddenly want to duck out of a conversation. Or start making jokes to distract from what’s being said, ask yourself what it is you’re trying to get away from.
The mind doesn’t want to be in a no-win situation, and if it gets a sense that it’s losing, a common tactic is to simply switch off. Of course, only you can decide whether it’s worth fighting this instinct, but the moments when you’re tempted to do this are often the moments where there’s a real opportunity to learn something.
The simple truth is that our minds aren’t perfect. Nor do they have unlimited resources. To save energy, our minds often go with the first story we tell ourselves about a particular situation and cling to it unless something forces us to change. This is actually a great strategy for navigating things like feeding ourselves and danger.
But when it comes to understanding the complexities of the world around us, there’s no hope of getting everything right first time. The blind spot in our mind’s eye makes it inevitable that we’ll occasionally miss things, even when it feels like we’re seeing perfectly clearly. All we need to do to get a fuller picture is be willing to take another look.