We take drinking as a very ordinary thing. However, what is happening is quite complex and based on a mass of learning.
Our hand grabs the cup. This is quite a sophisticated action requiring us to:
judge distance and pressure
work out a specific placement on the cup so as not to knock it over, or miss all together.
We lift the cup at the speed, learned over a life time, that doesn’t swill the liquid out of the cup but is fast enough to satisfy our desire. Without looking we touch the cup to our lips. Then we judge the level of tilt required to deliver a reasonable amount of fluid, without sloshing a deluge up our noses. We brace ourselves for it to be too hot and we take evasive action if it is. We respond if someone knocks us mid-swill and we adjust position to deal with this.
Judgement as sophisticated as this takes a lifetime to develop.
Taking a drink of tea (or anything else) requires extensive experimentation and learning though our lives. Without realising it, we develop the skill to analyse, measure and adjust in a rather refined and unconscious way. All this in order to be able to drink a cup of tea effectively.
Is it possible, therefore, that actually we aren’t all experts on what to do during a more complex situation, like a pandemic, for instance?
Is it conceivable that people with the responsibility of making the best decisions on a situation far more crucial than drinking tea, are quite possibly doing a good job? Even if it may not look like it? Maybe what is happening is complex and so we will have no idea what the “right” choices are until the whole thing has blown over? At that point, and only at that point, we will be able to analyse the outcome? Could it be that currently we really have no idea?
According to the World Economic Forum, analytical, creative thinking and complex problem solving, are key skills for now and over the next few years.
The pace of change, particularly around working lives, requires a workforce that can remain flexible, think creatively and make effective choices. Understating how the brain might actually get in the way of these skills and having a kitbag of strategies to boost thinking power, may be more important than experience. Knowing how we have done things in the past will not be as useful as coming up with ideas on how to do things differently.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein
Perspective of size – I highly recommend the animated film Antz to you, a delightful tale about a colony of ants. The main character is a worker ant called Z, pronounced zee, voiced brilliantly by Woody Allen. Z tries to break away from the insignificance of his existence and accidently becomes a hero, saving millions of lives. At the end of the film the “camera” pans away and you are shown that this huge colony, that seems vast and complex, is just a small mound in the middle of Central Park. The point is well made; these tiny creatures, that we have come to love and cheer for, are insignificant in the grand scheme of things and so they have a very limited perspective on the whole world.
Perspective of time – When the Romans invaded Britain, no doubt it was a terrible time; a time for fighting against their oppression and for deciding how to deal with these invaders. What would be the best thing to do for your family, should you collaborate or resist and what on earth is garlic? Now we can look back on that time, almost with fondness, and celebrate some of the ways our country changed – the food, the City walls, the straight roads, Hadrian’s Wall and Fishbourne Palace. If we had the chance to change history, would we have stopped them? It is impossible to say.
For weeks before the EU referendum I was trying to make a decision about something that I couldn’t fully grasp. I was confused by the arguments for and against. I couldn’t understand (and still don’t) how anyone could be absolutely certain either way. There were big businesses supporting either side of the argument and there was a lot of noise, but little in the way of facts, because all of it was conjecture – we have neither the perspective of size or time.
I decided to vote remain but I was not sure. I had a feeling that if the country did decide to remain then there would have been a bit of me that wondered if that was the right choice, an opportunity missed.
I am certain that some leavers voted so for utterly racist reasons. I am equally certain that many did so for logical, strategic and hope filled reasons. And I am also certain that many who voted either way did so for self-serving reasons and in a position of arrogance. We all voted from a position of ignorance.
The irrefutable truth is that we democratically voted to leave; well England and Wales did anyway. It may well mean that Scotland leaves the UK. On the other hand, it may well unite Ireland. It is impossible to know now if in generations to come this will be seen as a great decision or a disastrous decision – we have the perspective of Z.
We think of memories as something that we pick up along the way; little scars on our brains that show the journey that we have traveled. When we want to recall a memory we imagine that we go into a filing system, locate the memory and replay it from the original space on the hard drive. However this is not how memory works, not least because this is not how we perceive the world.
Memory, memory storage and memory retrieval is much more like cake making.
Our brains are like walk-in pantries with all of the different aspects of our experience (conscious and subconscious) stored in separate places on the shelves lining the walls. What we see is stored in a jar on a different shelf from what we hear, think, feel etc. The smell of an experience is placed in a jar right in the front, whereas sight is stored right at the back.
The cook in the middle puts the ingredients into the various jars as they occur. Then when that memory needs to be recalled they go to the different jars and build the memory from the different elements; they reconstruct the cake. However, it isn’t the original cake, it’s a new cake formed from the ingredients. Which is why the new cake can be a bit wrong and is partly why two people observing the same thing can recall it completely differently.
To learn something accurately we need to repeatedly make the cake, checking the recipe, using as many ingredients as possible, in order to make the connections between the correct jars really strong, bringing them to the front of the shelves.
Then eat the cake. I’m not sure how this fits into the analogy, but eating cake is a great thing to do. And using your brain requires calories.
This is something that I have been thinking about for sometime – the way our brains filter information. We notice what we are interested in, sometimes to the detriment of what’s actually true. I’m even doing it writing this post!
It’s helpful, as we can’t deal with all of the information available to us.
However, the down side is that we:
block some of the important information
assume that we have full knowledge about subjects
filter out information that doesn’t meet our world view
Here are a few examples:
“I hear it all the time.”
I heard someone describing how a group of people were talking about themselves and the work that they do. He was shocked by the words they used and how they were talking down their own impact. His theory was that there was a connection between how they spoke and their inability to get to senior people in their organisation. “I hear it all the time” he said. At this point it became clear that he worked with individuals on their communication styles. And I thought “aha, you hear it all the time because you listen out for it.” I wondered whether he “heard” them talking that way because that was his interest. He had a theory and was applying that to this situation by noticing what he was interested in and filtering out anything to the contrary.
“Those handouts were rubbish.”
A number of years ago I attended a workshop on dealing with conflict. The workshop was excellent. However, one of the attendees put in a complaint (and tried to include me in this “class action”.) His complaint was that the handouts were very badly produced. He was right, they were dreadful. However, the content of them was great and it shouldn’t have really undermined the day. But for this person it did. His job? He managed a reprographic department. For him the whole day was ruined because he couldn’t ignore the lack of professionalism over the handouts.
“That word keeps popping up.”
You hear a word or phrase for the first time then hear it 5 times in the following week. Did the universe just make up its mind to keep sharing this with you? No, it’s just that you are filtering for it. I learned the word ambit today. I wonder how long before I hear it again.
“That’s so irritating – how come no-one else notices!”
I train people to use PowerPoint effectively. It isn’t my life’s purpose but it does seem to figure a lot in my work. Consequently, since I notice what interests me, I notice a lot of poor practice. My intention is to ignore it but inevitably find myself making mental notes on how someone has done something wrong; drives me nuts. I’ve tried giving people resources to help them. I’ve even threatened to throw custard; I won’t of course. Well, probably not!
“I knew what they were like as soon as I saw them.”
We quickly make up our minds about a person or situation and then look for the information to back up our position, or alternatively, we ignore information that contradicts our judgement. This is not great when you are map reading. Its terrible if you are making judgements about people in an interview. And its potentially lethal if you are trying to diagnose an illness.
“I hear this all the time.”
Next time you find yourself saying “I hear this all the time” ask yourself why you hear it a lot. Is it because this is what is said, is it because you are listening to a selection of people who are all saying the same thing (and why is that, by the way?) or is it because you are filtering out other voices?
People have their pet theories and then find lots of examples that back these theories up; we notice what we are interested in. I hear it all the time.