I am fascinated by the brain. I love listening to neuroscientists explain their research and current findings (as long as they use small words 😉). I can still remember when I first learned about forming habits — how the brain creates “short-cuts” in the wiring when we repeat a thought or behaviour. As a life coach, this is particularly exciting to me. We can, in fact, create long-term change. We can literally be transformed by renewing our minds.
But, I am equally freaked out when I hear real-life stories and/or research about how our brains can trick us –how we can confidently recall details from memory that are later proven inaccurate. And what about optical illusions, brain teasers and a long list of perception biases that influence what we see, think and believe? Yikes.
It reminds me of a trip with my mom several years ago.
We were driving on the New York thruway at night. After several hours on the road, we were pretty tired and also quite bored. So we decided to stop at one of the many travel plazas to take a potty break and stretch our legs. Mom has always liked to add a bit of fun and adventure to everyday experiences, so I wasn’t surprised when she said, “I’ve got some change. Let’s play one of those arcade type games.” In this case, the “games” she was referring to weren’t pinball machines or video games, they were like the claw crane game where you use the joy stick to try to pick up a teddy bear.
So, we went to the “arcade” area and looked at the options. A couple of the machines caught our attention. They had rows of DVDs – current ones! The game worked like this: put your coins in the slot and the DVD carousel will begin to spin. Hit the button precisely when your desired DVD lines up with the arrow and you win! (Pretty exciting stuff when you’ve been driving in the dark for several hours and entertainment options are limited.)
There were two of these Movie Stop games side-by-side. So, which one to play? Hmmmm. We checked out all the titles available on each machine to see which movie we wanted to play for. Found one! Let the thruway carnival games begin.
I put some coins in the machine but nothing happened. No spinning carousel. I pushed the coin return and still nothing. I pushed it again, but harder this time. Nothing. We were about to look for a staff person to help us when we stood up and noticed something on the floor beside the game. There it was. The cord and power plug were laying on the floor beside the machine.
We took a step back and looked at both machines. The one on the left was plugged in and lit up like a Christmas tree. The one on the right (the one we had chosen to play) was completely dark.
It was so obvious, we could hardly believe what we had done. And, both of us had looked at the two machines before playing. Mom even watched me deposit the coins. We laughed about it but were also a bit freaked out that we could miss something that obvious. What other obvious mistakes had we made in the past, or worse yet, might we make in the future?
“Decades of research have proven that expectation is a powerful force. It acts on our perceptions much as gravity acts on light, bending them in ways that are measurable by others, but, at least to us, imperceptible. Not only do we tend to see what we expect to see, we also tend to experience what we expect to experience.”
Increasing our awareness may help us avoid some of these pitfalls and make better choices. And if not, at least give us permission to laugh at ourselves.