Intentional Creation of Blind Spots

They didn’t mean to create blind spots in kittens, but in 1958 2 scientists, Blakemore and Cooper, hoped to build on some research findings from the 1930s.They took 3 week old kittens and for two hours each day, until they were about 3 months old, put them in a cylinder that had only vertical stripes on the walls. They used the ever-dreaded cone of shame to prevent them from seeing their own bodies. The other 21 hours a day they were kept in complete darkness. At three months old the kittens were introduced to the physical world where time after time they’d walk right off the edge of the table.

The kittens couldn’t see horizontal … anything! Surfaces, contours, skinny rods, thick straps – they were more than clumsy, they were blind to a very significant aspect of their reality.

Further study showed the area of the brain that could interpret vertical stripes was well-developed and, not surprisingly, the area of the brain that can interpret horizontal stripes was practically non-existent. Which meant the cats, literally could not see those horizontal stripes. They had literal blind spots…or blind lines, as it were. Once they were a part of the regular world for awhile there was a correction.

First, the kittens had to
1) find the new understanding and
2) catalogue evidence that supported the new understanding.

Physiologically this is fascinating. On-going studies have shown that this is true of all motor skills, it’s why it takes special training for a native Chinese speaker to say “rrrr” instead of “lll” or to repair an ineffectual golf swing.

The parts of the brain for one skill build up nice and strong while the parts of the brain that might hold another possible understanding whither away creating literal blind spots in our understanding of ourselves and the world. 

Psychologically this takes on a whole new meaning.

We Unintentionally Secure Our Blind Spots

In 1960, 2 years after the vertical stripes experiment, psychologist and researcher Peter Wason identified one of today’s most well-known cognitive bias known as the Confirmation Bias.

Basically – our current beliefs get reinforced by our ability to almost exclusively see the proof that our prejudice holds. It is difficult for us to see evidence to the contrary and when it is pointed out to us we dismiss it as being anomalous – or…the exception to rule, the outlier. Our brains have developed a very myopic way of viewing the world and we have perpetuated it by refusing to entertain the idea that we’re wrong. We have deliberate and habitual blind spots, if you will.

Whether it’s patriotism, parenting styles, financial awareness or simply our sense of self-worth our brains have been trained to create a very specific AND LIMITED understanding of ourselves, our world and our place in our world. Those patterns are our vertical stripes.

  • One of the reasons fascism works is because blind patriotism without question or understanding begins in childhood – perhaps with a promise of faithfulness that is repeated over and over again building up the part of the brain that says “my country is the best” (vertical stripes) so that when opposing view points do come into the mix the part of the brain that might ask “how could my country be better” (horizontal stripes – blind spots) is weak and atrophied so the thought of criticism, no matter how constructive, seems ridiculous.
  • This phenomenon is also why abused children taught to believe that corporal punishment is in their best interest (vertical stripes) often grow up to believe that kindness and compassion (horizontal stripes – blind spots) will not raise worthwhile people.
  • People raised with what feels like an unlimited supply of money (vertical stripes) cannot understand why poor people feel lack (horizontal stripes – blind spots) and experience a disconnect as a result.
  • It’s why adults raised with “children should be seen and not heard” (vertical stripes) cannot fathom ever having the audacity (horizontal stripes – blind spots) to ask for a raise .

What I want you to notice here is that the thoughts themselves are not inherently bad. It is the misunderstanding that our thoughts are the only true thoughts that can be so damaging. People who don’t see the world the way that we do are not necessarily stupid, uneducated or evil simply because they don’t see the writing on the wall that we see. They simply have a different set of vertical stripes than we do.

What can we do, then, to experience more connection with others and address our own blind spots? The answer is “neuroplasticity” – a fancy word that means the brain WITH PRACTICE can re-learn. It’s the WITH PRACTICE part that’s hard though. Remember, those kittens could not see horizontal stripes … it was as though horizontal lines and objects weren’t even there. Over time, however, as they interacted with their world (found new understanding) and made mistakes they were able to adjust their perception of the world (catalogued evidence). You can too.

Take a look at that belief you hold: What is your #1 belief about the state of the world? Do you think that we’re going to hell in a hand basket? or do you think we live in a miraculous world where innovation happens in every moment? Does it feel like everywhere you turn there is a new threat to your well-being? Perhaps you think we live at the dawning of a new age where people are getting more in touch with themselves and learning how to be loving communities again.

Your inherent belief is your vertical stripe. Physiologically you have built up the part of the brain that holds that belief. You will naturally gravitate, notice and catalogue evidence that your belief is true. Psychologically you have stored up a mountain of evidence that confirms your current understanding. Basically you have, by default 1) found an understanding and 2) catalogued evidence in support of it.

I’m not here to tell you that your current perspective is wrong. I’m simply saying that it is NOT the only perspective that is true and IF you want to change your perspective you must 1) find new understanding and 2) find evidence that supports the alternate truth.

The kittens had a physical world to stumble through that forced them to see the alternate truth, they couldn’t help but crash into their alternate truth. WE have an emotional one – which means we have to bring conscious choice to the learning process.

We are all in this together. The more we stand firm in our own, limited view of the world the more disconnect we feel from each other. The more we question our limited view the more places we find to learn, grow and connect with ourselves and with each other. When we can find those blind spots and even, in the slightest bit, open our eyes to new possibilities then we create a more positive life experience for everyone involved. The next time you feel staunch in your belief about something I want you just to notice it as a vertical stripe…one version of the truth. Hopefully you’ll leave room for horizontal stripes that can surprise you and improve your life…after all, those kittens had to feel pretty dang good once they stopped falling off tables.