NPR’s article, Why Even Radiologists Can Miss A Gorilla Hiding In Plain Sight discusses work by Harvard Medical School attention researchers Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe, who find that radiologists overwhelmingly fail to see a gorilla placed on MRIs; implications of this study apply to everyone and how our expectations shape how we perceive (and fail to perceive) the world around us.
Their findings—that 83% of participating radiologists failed to notice a postage size image of a man in a gorilla suit superimposed on a lung scan—are shocking, but not surprising. They reinforce what I’ve been saying (for starters, see A Scientific Basis for New Age Bullshit and An Example of Shifting “Can’t” Thinking, The CIA on ‘Your Thoughts Create Your Reality’): the brain is designed to look for anticipated outcomes, so much so that other—perhaps far more important— information gets overlooked.
What lessons might we take away from this generally? Here’s one…
People know me as a strong advocate of positive thinking. Those who take issue with positive thinking may suggest that occasional negativity can be a consequence-free activity. I won’t contest occasional negativity, but habitual negativity conditions the brain expect negative outcomes. As Drew and Wolfe demonstrated, expect a particular outcome and your mind will have a harder time noticing any other outcomes.
Our habitual thoughts reveal to us what tasks we have assigned to our Reticular Activating System, that part of our brain responsible for filtering out the relevant information from the wealth of perceptions constantly around us. Habitual negative thoughts task the RAS with noticing things that are “wrong” around us. No one should be surprised if a brain so conditioned gets quite good at finding plenty wrong, and quite poor at finding anything good. “I was certain things would be bad, and look at all the bad I found!” What validation! Of course, such validation is moot, as it merely demonstrates that your RAS is working correctly. Drew and Wolfe’s study illustrate the potency of the RAS. Looking for a particular outcome is not unlike putting on blinders: showing you only what you are looking for, ignoring everything else, even when the other information might be crucial.
These expectation blinders get reinforced with use; if you are looking for negative outcomes you will get better at it over time. Just like the gorilla, good outcomes become literally invisible to such a mind. Invisible good is very hard to appreciate or to leverage into something better. Habitual negativity becomes an obstacle to achievement in and of itself.
If we consciously change our thoughts towards expecting the outcomes we would like to have, we enroll our brain in actively searching for those outcomes. When we start looking for evidence of favorable outcomes, our brain becomes much better at finding them. When good outcomes show up we are more likely to recognize them, making it that much easier for us to use such good outcomes to our advantage, thereby actively plotting our life’s trajectory in a direction we want.
From moment to moment we enroll our brain in one way or another: expect good or expect bad. When we expect bad, we are still plotting our life’s trajectory, just in the opposite direction from what we want.