Hidden in Plain Sight

This past weekend I needed to charge the battery in my camera. I asked my son, the prime user of the camera, if he knew where the camera was. He said it was in the credenza in the living room. I found the camera; I also noticed in the credenza, to my surprise, the camera box in which I kept the battery charger.

There was a problem. The battery charger was not in the box. I was puzzled, because I always keep the charger in the box; and I always keep the box in my study. I surmised that I must’ve removed the charger from the box and that the charger was sitting on the shelf in my study. I looked and looked, but the charger was not on the shelf in my study.

Hours later when I was getting resigned to having to order a new charger, I looked again at the camera box in the credenza. I instantly realized something that I didn’t realize for the first five or so times I looked. Although this was a Panasonic camera box, it was considerably smaller than the larger Panasonic camera box for my camera.

I got up from the living room chair and went back to my study. The camera box I was looking for was right there. I had literally looked several times in the place the box sat, but I had not seen the box.

I looked right at this box, but I didn’t see it.

Am I just particularly unobservant? Research suggests otherwise. In their now famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons demonstrated that most people will literally not see a guerrilla that comes across their field of vision when they are instructed to look for something else.

Consider this recent variation on Charbris and Simons study where radiologists were asked to spot nodules in a CT scan. A gorilla 48 times the size of the nodule was also placed in the scan.

The authors of the study, which will be published in a future issue of Psychological Science, tested 24 credentialed radiologists—including nine from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and 15 expert examiners from the American Board of Radiology. Radiologists were asked to look at five lung CT scans, each which contained about 10 nodules or abnormalities. They were asked to click on anything strange on the scans. On the final scan, a gorilla about 48 times the size of an average nodule was placed in the upper right hand quadrant.

The researchers report, “83 percent of radiologists failed to spot the animal, even though they went past it four times on average.” This is about the number of times I looked at the exact spot where the camera box sat; I failed to spot it—because I didn’t believe it was there. What happened to the radiologists and to me is called “inattentional blindness.”

It didn’t matter how many times I looked on my shelf for the battery charger—because I believed the camera box was not on my shelf, I could not see the box. It didn’t matter how many times the radiologist looked at the scan; they were not going to see the gorilla because they were looking for nodules and not gorillas.

Gorillas. Camera boxes. What else is hidden in plain sight? Here are just a few very important things.

Wisdom, creativity, and emotional well-being sit waiting behind our often very busy minds. When our minds become stiller and we give up believing we know the answer, an insight often appears. Only once I gave up believing I understood the camera charger issue, did the obvious—that I was looking in the wrong box—become apparent.

Most of us spend most of our life look in the wrong place for our emotional well-being. We believe our emotional well-being is a function of arranging circumstances that we believe will enhance our emotional well-being. Our emotional well-being, though, is a function of the quality of our thinking and not of achieving circumstances that are so ephemeral.

In the realm of economics we block order and prosperity. Some believe that order and thus prosperity are only obtained when somebody in-charge controls the choices of others.

To have such a belief is to ignore the evidence that is all around us. Order wants to happen. Human beings want to cooperate.

Consider just one simple case—the miracle of the modern supermarket. A modern supermarket is fully stocked all the time with a cornucopia of foods from all over the world. Even the greatest king a few centuries ago could not have imagined such bounty. No one orders the farmers to grow the food. No one orders the trucker to be in the business of shipping the food. No one orders a supermarket to stock certain products.

I could go on, but you get the point. In the former Soviet Union, even in Moscow in the height of the summer, fresh produce was in short supply. Because people waited for the government to direct their energy, tons of produce literally rotted in the fields in the summer for the lack of coordination that a free market provides for free. The Soviets had to wait for the central planner, who with limited knowledge, had to order people to pick produce and truckers to ship the produce into the cities. How well do you think that such a system worked? The central planners of socialism and communism were suppressing order, not promoting order.

Each of us has our own “central planner” in our own mind which chews over and analyzes our problems, heckling us with constant should haves, would haves, and could haves. Our “planner” works about as well as did central planners in the Soviet Union.

Our own emotional well-being and the economic well-being of society are literally hidden in plain sight. If only we would get out of the way. The price of admission is simple humility. When we stop being so impressed with the power of our own mind, the miracles of a larger order are given to us for free. We fail to see the obvious because we think we know.

2 Responses to Hidden in Plain Sight

  1. Susan Kelly says:

    Thanks for this post, Barry. It’s so darn hard to get the logical mind out of the driver’s seat. How do you do it?

    • Barry Brownstein says:

      Thanks, Susan. Indeed, it is the work of a lifetime. Here is one pointer–we can look at our feelings. If we are upset, anxious, angry etc. that is a sign that our thinking is off. There can be no feelings without a thought first. Now, it will certainly seem that the problems that we are analyzing deserves our full attention and analysis but that is just a trick of the mind. Our ego often speaks first. For sure, mine does :-)

      Of course, the logical mind has its use too. A sports analogy may be helpful. Drills were you go over the same thing over and over, in practice, are helpful. In game conditions what is called for is flow where thoughts pass in and out of your mind without much attention.

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