Know Your Psychological Blind Spot

This is an uneasy time. Things feel unsettled. Ideas we believed in based on information we thought was correct are being questioned, debated and sometimes debunked on a daily basis.

Since the beginning of life on this planet, change has occurred. Theories have been developed and hypotheses have been “proven,” only to have these same theories turned upside down with new questions and new technology.

It’s a part of life – change. We all know this. We have T-shirts that read “Manure Happens.” The Serenity Prayer encourages us to accept change. And yet we beg, plead, argue, throw fists into the air and at each other to keep things the same. Why?

We fear change. Our brain wants what it wants, and it does NOT want change. Change challenges our sense of control and ultimately our sense of security. Change activates the fear center in our brain. That makes sense if we are talking about a grizzly bear charging us while cooking out in our backyard. Our fear center gets triggered and we jump, run, scream, fight to ensure survival. It’s instinctual.

But why behave this way during an argument? Why in this political environment or during protests or debates or professional meetings or traffic stops, would we be so quick to react with such life or death primal force?

First, our brain is wired to do two things and two things only – to survive and to be right. The second is really a cousin to the first because the more we get things “right,” then presumably the longer we live.

We have a powerful part of our brain, the limbic system, which houses, among other things, our fear center. This fear center triggers our fight/flight/freeze reaction. These desires are instinctual. They are automatic. And they are quite different from thought-out responses.

Second, our brain does this interesting thing that our eyes do also. Our brain fills in information gaps on its own in relation to our memory as well as our predictions of the future. Just like with our vision, our brain has blind spots. The brain takes from the present and fills in detail where our brain previously dropped factual information. It does this to build continuity.

The easiest way to illustrate this point is to look up an image of a visual blind spot demonstration. You will probably come across a picture of a star and a circle. The directions will ask you to cover your left eye and focus your right eye on the star while moving the whole image closer to your face.

At some point during this experiment, the circle will disappear. What’s important about this exercise is that the vision center in your brain will fill in the blind spot with whatever color surrounds the circle. Pretty cool, huh?

Our brain does the same thing with blind spots in our thinking. It will fill in gaps in our memory or mental pictures of the future, with stories from our past or what we are experiencing today. It’s doing this to help us, and often times it does. Here’s an example of when it doesn’t.

Dr. Daniel Gilbert in “Stumbling on Happiness” talks about the way many of us responded to flying after 9/11. The death toll that day was horrifying; however, it did not sway the overall statistic that proves it was (and is) safer to fly than to drive.

The increased fear that resulted after 9/11 caused more people to choose a more dangerous route of transportation. The choice was based solely on emotion, no facts. As a result, a larger number of people died on the roads immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, than all of those who perished in the terrorist attacks combined.

Dr. Gilbert makes the point that the brains of the people who chose to disregard the statistics filled in the gaps of prediction and memory with the emotions they were experiencing at that present moment. Consequently, they put themselves in greater danger based on an illusion.

When change presents itself, be aware of how your body experiences fear – a tight chest, a gagging sensation, a tension headache. When that physical cue presents itself, before you react, simply take a moment to breathe deep into your abdomen. Take a walk. Do jumping jacks. Take a shower. Move your body before you do anything else.

Do something physical so that your thinking brain catches up with your emotional brain. Do this before you vote, threaten, call names, purchase or withdraw. Avoid reacting based on illusions created by a brain that’s filling in blind spots.

The more we respond with a thinking brain in the face of change, the greater the chance we transcend fear and live more peaceful, honorable lives.

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