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What if You're Brain Blind and Don't Know It?

What do you see in this image?

Some people see a tired old woman. Others see a stylish, slightly coy young woman. Why?

It's an optical illusion that is playing upon your brain's recticular activating system (RAS) so that you see what you first expect to see.

Okay, that's just a clevelry done picture, you might say. But have you ever experienced brain blindness in "real life?" How would you know?

Let's think about it for a moment . . . have you ever had an moment like this?

You’re late. Rushing for the door, you realize that you don’t have your car keys. You search, getting more irritated by the moment. No luck. Then your spouse strolls over with the keys and says, “They were on the kitchen counter.”

They were right there but you couldn’t see them. Why?

Because you usually place them somewhere else. Your brain knows that and it obediently filters out any data that would conflict with your existing bias (namely, that y never put our keys on the counter!).

I (Will) remember helping my Dad around the house. He’d ask me to get some nails from the garage … and my heart would sink. From past traumatic episodes, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find those nails. I’d get precise instructions. OK, they’re on the left side of the work bench, got it.

And, sure enough, agonizing minutes later, I’d return empty-handed. Then Dad would march us back into the garage and… there they were! Right where he said they were. But I couldn’t see them.

Where else does this kind of “missing the obvious” occur? Think about it for a moment.

If you’re reviewing job applications for a position you’ve posted, what social biases could have creep in and infect your thinking about certain groups or types of people? Think you’re not vulnerable to those types of implicit bias? Think again.

Studies have shown over and over again that European-sounding names get call backs 50% more frequently than ethnic-sounding names (even in blind tests where everything else about the candidates’ qualifications were the same).


Because our societal biases have trained us to believe certain individuals are a more natural “fit” for the job and so we unconsciously filter to confirm that reality.

How about when you’re evaluating someone’s job performance? Or a boss’ request? Or your child's report card? What are you unconsciously looking to confirm?

What we believe about people activates our brain’s RAS which can, if we’re not double-checking ourselves, blind us to a person’s actions or potential that go contrary to our thoughts about them. In other words, brain blindness is one of the elements that tricks us into creating self-fulfilling prophecies about people, relationships, and situations. Sometimes it leads to the "halo effect" (where we can't see people's faults -- and con artists know how to invoke this effect with ease).

Or . . . think about this familiar response to hearing an innovative idea:

“That’s not the way we do things.”

This is another example of brain blindness that can turn out to be very costly, both in business and life. In fact, what’s being suggested may be a very good idea, but we just can’t see it.

Why not?

Because we never put those keys on the counter. Because we’re afraid we won’t find the nails. Because that person doesn’t fit my image of who I think I want in this new job. Because it’s not the way we do things around here. Whatever the reason, it’s a missed opportunity.

The remedy? We can open our minds, we can think “outside the box,” as it’s said, and we can train our brains to filter for the unexpected, not against it.


Simply by catching our initial thoughts and asking, is that true or am I experiencing brain blindness? And then ask others to double-check your thinking when you're about to make an important decision. And, if possible, ask someone who sees the world differently. That’s what good detectives do and it’s a powerful clue for creating a thriving life.

We like to conclude these posts with a Thriving tip drawn from our book Thriving in Business and Life:

“When we acknowledge that we have biases that blind us we can deliberately culture a learning environment to develop a less delusional reality.”

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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