Watching for Critical Blindspots

Mark Alexander

[Thanks to Lou Tice of The Pacific Institute in Seattle, WA, for many of the insights and examples that follow.]

In many ways, we do not act according to the truth. We act according to the truth as we believe it to be. And there is a particular danger when "experts" are certain that they know the truth. The human mind innately responds to "psychological certainty" by creating very real blindspots to evidence and arguments that contradict the certainty. Anyone aspiring to be objective in viewing evidence and sorting through arguments needs to develop a degree of self-doubt in order to minimize the automatic and natural actions of the human mind.

Cliff Young

In Australia a 600-km marathon is held between the cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Several years ago a 61-year-old man named Cliff Young showed up to run the race. Now the world class runners thought he was some derelict that showed up in the wrong place because Cliff showed up wearing Osh Gosh overalls and galoshes. And he was obviously an old man.

[For the latest info on Cliff Young at 75, go here.]

When he told them he was there for the marathon, the professional runners asked if he had ever run in a marathon before. "No," replied Cliff. "How have you been training?" they asked. "I have cattle on my station [farm] and since I have no horses, I run around to move them along." The runners laughed.

You see, every professional marathoner knew with certainty that it took about five days to run this race, and that in order to compete, you would need to run 18 hours and sleep six hours. Cliff Young was clearly not up to their standards.

When the marathon started, the pros left Cliff behind in his galoshes. He had a leisurely shuffling style of running that targeted him as an amateur.

Cliff had no training. He did not know what the world class runners knew. As you have probably guessed, Cliff won the race, but that is not what is astonishing. What is astonishing is that he cut one and a half days off the record time.

How? Because of his lack of training, he didn't *know* that you had to sleep. Cliff just kept on shuffling along in his galoshes while the pro runners slept, and he finished the race in three and a half days. He beat everybody. He was a sensation in Australia.

Now that world-class runners *know* that it is possible to run days at a time without sleep, and that they can conserve energy by adopting an easy shuffling jog, they have a new way of approaching long marathons.

We are like the pro runners. We act, not according to the *real truth* but according to some cockeyed truth given to us by some well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning *expert*. For this reason, people that don't know the *accepted wisdom* are more likely to discover new aspects of life, create remarkable inventions, and break through into a new realm of consciousness.

The "F" Word

When we lock-on to a particular truth, we lock-out anything that contradicts it. We create a scotoma, a blind spot. You may have seen the following example before. If not, follow the instructions EXACTLY.

Read the following sentence ONCE, and then go on:


Now go back and read the sentence one more time - read it ONLY ONCE, and count the number of letters "F". Then go on.

***********<Jeopardy Theme Music>*************

If you've never seen this before you probably counted three Fs. Actually,
there are seven. If you don't believe it, go back to the sentence and find

What? You still only count three? Hmmm...isn't it amazing what our mind is capable of blocking out? The truth is that there ARE seven Fs. Go back and look again.

***********<Jeopardy Theme Music>*************

If you think this is some kind of trick, it's not. Go back and be sure to count the Fs in the words "OF". Then go on.

There, that's better.

Since most of us were raised to read phonetically, our minds will only allow us to *see* the Fs that sound like Fs, not those that sound like Vs.

The same thing works when we hold strong beliefs, opinions or attitudes. We lock-on to our *truth* as we think it to be, and our minds lock-out anything that contradicts our *truth*. We create a scotoma to the truth. This is a very natural process.

Locking on can make change, flexibility, creativity, and the acceptance of a new and better interpretation extremely difficult. When we lock-on to the idea that there is only one way to do something, that there is only one way to interpret evidence, that this paradigm or that paradigm is the only good one, that an alternate interpretation is sheer lunacy, we not only lock-out other ways of interpreting the evidence, we don't even SEE other ways of interpreting the evidence.

The Reticular Activating System (RAS)

There are tiny hairs covering almost every inch of your body: your legs and stomach and the back of your neck. Hairs being tickled by your pants or shirt or dress. How is it that you usually never notice them until someone points them out, and then you feel them?

Like a good executive secretary, your Reticular Activating System (RAS) screens out the junk, the non-essential, the distracting. Physically, the RAS is a network of cells on the cerebral cortex. It allows you to concentrate. Every moment, your physical senses are transmitting information, most of it irrelevant to your conscious needs. The RAS builds scotomas (blind spots) to information that is not important to you right now.

The RAS only lets through information that is of value or a threat.

That's why the mother of a newborn child can sleep through a radio playing, a truck driving by, and a jet flying overhead--but the moment that baby whimpers, her eyes pop open.

That's why an adolescent can watch Melrose Place, and not hear a word you call out when it's dinnertime.

That's why you can read a book, and once you become engrossed in it, the outer world and its distractions fade into nothingness.

Marketing pros understand how the RAS works. How many ads have you seen in the last two weeks advertising refrigerator sales? None? If you are not in the market, chances are every one just bypassed your consciousness. But when your refrigerator breaks down and you are looking for a new one, suddenly sale ads appear everywhere.

So if your company has a million-dollar advertising budget, do you blow it all in one weekend, saturating the advertising market? Or do you stretch those dollars over many months? People only see what is of value to them. Over time, more people are likely to be in the market.

The RAS has a psychological counterpart in the subconscious called the Censor. The Censor has three jobs: to resolve conflict, to create drive and energy, and to maintain sanity.

The subconscious stores *truth* (it is initially uncritical as to the validity of the stored truth). These *truths* are stored in the form of habits and attitudes that arise from facsimiles, the picture-patterns that we hold onto as anchor points in this world.

For example, suppose my parents told me (as they did when I was twelve) that "You can't make money doing what you love; you have to be practical." If I uncritically accept that picture, it makes its way into my subconscious and is stored as *true*. Now immediately the Censor goes to work building scotomas to anything suggesting that I actually CAN make money doing what I love. I only develop habits and attitudes that reinforce the stored picture.

Or suppose that my professors tell me that Shakspere of Stratford wrote the Shakespeare poems and plays. If I uncritically accept that picture, it makes its way into my subconscious and is stored as *true*. Now immediately the Censor goes to work building scotomas to anything suggesting an alternate candidate. Unless something happens to overcome the scotomas, I will accept the orthodox view because those anchor points have been established with which I am comfortable. AND if I go on to build a scholarly career on that picture, or to tie my finances in some way with that interpretation, then I will build further scotomas to block out any threat to my comfortable and lucrative foundation.

Why does the Censor build such blind spots? Because the Censor cannot abide insanity, meaning anything that contradicts my *perceived* truth. The Censor functions automatically and naturally. As long as I believe this *truth*, I cannot accept anything that contradicts it. The Censor has maintained my *sanity* by requiring me to see only the stored truth. You can literally be looking at the opposite truth and NOT SEE IT. (Remember the F's?)

In other words, you can literally be looking at evidence that contradicts your interpretation of historical evidence and NOT SEE IT.

This phenomenon is evident when you lose your keys. Have you ever *lost* your keys, and after having looked *everywhere* you announce, "My keys are nowhere to be found." Immediately, your Censor builds a scotoma against your actually *seeing* the keys. Why? Because you would appear foolish (insane) after having made your statement. So then someone else finds them (in an obvious place where you had *looked* several times), and you have to say something like, "OK, who moved them? They were not here when I looked."

This phenomenon is also evident when you judge someone. I remember being on a job and being told that a certain fellow employee was stealing from the company, but had yet to be caught at it. I began to *see* that employee's shiftiness. Her actions were obviously suspicious. Though I had once thought her kind and ethical, now she acted in a way that reinforced her untrustworthiness. Once the *real* culprit was caught, she regained her kindness and innocence.

Since stored *truths* build blind spots to reality, it seems to me that the scholars have quite a challenge in leading students into higher studies. For any statement or *truth* the scholar presents, the student may accept it in such a way that scotomas are formed against other, better *truths* or interpretations. Thus it seems incumbent upon the scholar to convey a strong sense of only standing behind interpretations as a "best case" rather than "the one and only truth."

For this reason I challenge Terry Ross and Richard Nathan and others when they demonstrate how "locked-on" they are to an absolute interpretation.

A Bit of How the Mind Works

The Conscious Mind

1) Perception - We gather information about the world through our several senses. As we have already seen, these perceptions can be incomplete or inaccurate. Suppose I am reading the humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare newsgroup for the first time. I see a new post that advances an argument challenging Shakspere's authorship of the plays...

2) Association - Upon perceiving something, we try to associate it with past experience. I have seen many badly presented arguments challenging Shakspere's authorship of the plays, all of which were unconvincing…

3) Evaluation - After associating the perception, we begin evaluating it by comparing it to past experience. We quickly ask ourselves, "How does this perception compare with what I already know?" or "Towards what is this leading me?" In the past, I have spent time demolishing bad arguments and I now feel that the whole thing is a waste of time. What is this new post leading me toward? Nothing good...

4) Decision - After evaluating, we do one of three things: decide to act, react, or not act. Since a decision is based on our immediate needs or goals, I choose to react by deleting the post unread, reading only part before deleting, or quickly responding with dripping ridicule without giving the post much thought.

The Subconscious Mind

1) Stores Truth - The subconscious is the recorder of our interpretation of reality, our *truth*. It records all experiences in *pictures*: what we think, do, and say; how we imagine ourselves to be based on what we tell ourselves or what others tell us; what the truth is in the world "out there," what our emotional reactions to things are. In fact, the more deeply our emotions respond to experience, the more implanted the picture becomes. This is why fears and aversions can be rooted so deeply. The times one has spent reading bad and useless arguments can affect me so badly, the associated *truth* of that uselessness would be so deeply stored, that I would have to work hard to overcome that buried picture. (All challenging authorship arguments are ridiculous and useless.)

We can reflect upon our stored pictures and recall some of them (if our Censor allows us to). From all this we have our picture of *reality*, however distorted it may be. (That new post could have offered some real germ of new insight into authorship matters.)

2) Stores Habits and Attitudes - Apart from handling things like breathing, heartbeat, etc., the subconscious handles such automatic functions like driving a car (after we learn how), buttoning our shirt and anything else that we have repeated dozens of times. These become *habits*.

Most of our habits are good. Some are barriers (smoking, phobias, avoiding certain situations thoughtlessly). These can obstruct our ability to change or to accept a larger truth.

Your stored *truths* and your stored habits and attitudes about the world form your *image* of the world.

The Censor (a part of the Subconscious)

1) Maintains Sanity - The Censor makes sure that you *act* like your self-image.

It defines this acting as *sanity*. When you don't act like *yourself* you develop anxiety until you either start acting like yourself again, or you *change* yourself (your self-image). That is, if you have a strong image of yourself as a Stratfordian, you have a harder time, even temporarily, trying on the "shoes" or point of view of an Oxfordian. The stronger the image, the more you will subconsciously work to thwart a change to that image.

If you actually discover a good Oxfordian argument, you will suffer anxiety because of the conflict with your Stratfordian self-image. A good argument is then more likely to suffer a stronger attack. (The same holds true, of course, among staunch Oxfordians who come upon a good Stratfordian argument.)

Another example: If you *know* that you are not good in math, then if you do well on a math exam, you will suffer anxiety because doing well is *not like you*. Your Censor then will *correct for the error of success* and you will do poorly on the next exam.

Why do poor people who win the Jackpot usually end up poor again soon after? Why do people who have little money and inherit a significant amount usually spend it all and end up where they started? Because they picture themselves as poor, so they must *correct for the mistake of wealth*.

Why do people who've been in prison for decades have such trouble adjusting to the outside world once they are released? Why will they commit a crime in order to be *sent back* to prison? Because freedom conflicts with their deeply ingrained *picture* of being an inmate. Freedom = anxiety.

To a staunch Stratfordian, a good Oxfordian argument = anxiety, insanity.

That's why imagination is crucial to experience. We only attract ourselves to a state of consciousness once we can *see* ourselves in it. In other words, a scholar needs to develop a kind of objectivity where deeply held beliefs are challenged and dislodged to form a more flexible scholarly consciousness.

2) Resolves Conflict - The Censor also helps us solve problems. In fact, once we understand the art of *giving* our Censor problems to solve (resolve), we can grow in remarkable ways.

The Censor won't allow us to hold two contradictory pictures of ourselves or reality. To experience two contradictory beliefs, pictures, or feelings is called "Cognitive Dissonance". The Censor always works to resolve Cognitive Dissonance. Gestalt psychology tells us that whenever we picture something as incomplete, we label it a *problem*. The Censor works to make things complete, to resolve cognitive dissonance, to solve problems. Thus, when a staunch Stratfordian faces a good Oxfordian argument, the Censor will either 1) dismiss the good argument in order to preserve the comfort of a staunch, entrenched position, or 2) let go of the staunchness and begin to allow a larger picture of reality to emerge.

3) Creates Drive and Energy - Suppose you set a goal to remodel your kitchen. Suddenly you have a *problem*. The picture or *vision* you have does not match the *reality*. You experience cognitive dissonance and your Censor moves into action to resolve the problem, to create wholeness (gestalt). You must do one of two things: either give up your vision or remodel the kitchen.

This form of *anxiety* is actually creative drive and energy. In other words, to be creative is to deliberately throw your life *out of order* (setting a goal or creating a vision) so that the Censor gives you creative drive and energy to get your life *back in order* (accomplish the goal or vision).

Many people avoid setting visions and goals, or accepting new interpretations, because they confuse creative drive with *stress*. To grow intellectually means to continually *Revise* yourself and your models of reality. This is why a true scholar does not require students to "lock on" to particular literary interpretations, or require students to work primarily with critical interpretations of literature rather than the literature itself.

Real scholars will help students thoughtfully explore alternative models, without prejudicing them or threatening them with academic censure.


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