What We See And Hear But Don’t

Funny, what you miss. At a talk yesterday, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the presenting scientist was nervous. It wasn’t until forty-five minutes in that I realized he was constantly saying “sort of” — sometimes even three times in one sentence. During the remaining fifteen minutes, I counted eighty sort ofs. Hearing sort of from a scientist is only slightly better than hearing it from an architect or engineer.

I’m not mentioning this to be critical; at different times in my life I’ve been bitten by the “like” bug. What interested me was how I failed to notice his sort ofs for such a long time, how I found the meaning hidden amidst the verbal garbage without effort or awareness.

It comes down to this: we are strategically oblivious. We learn at a young age what in our world is important and what is irrelevant. We learn to filter out the sensation of our shoes on our feet and the background sounds of fans or buzzing lights. But my favorite example is eye color.

Most of us make considerable eye contact with others when we converse. We have specific areas of the brain that are highly tuned to process the direction of a person’s gaze, even their pupil size, yet we are terrible at noticing eye color. Obviously we can surmise many people’s eye color from their ethnicity (most having brown eyes), but unless a Caucasian has eyes of a startling color, we often fail to notice it. I have blond hair, fair coloring, and brown eyes. When asked, most of my friends said my eyes are blue, a reasonable guess based on my hair. They’ve stared at my eyes for years and never learned their color. But why should they? Eye color isn’t used to identify individuals, nor does it tell us about their intentions or emotional states. Our brains latch on to what they need. The rest is visual trash.

In this terrible economy, people need something to feel good about. So keep in mind that you too are an expert ignorer. Don’t believe me? Try listening to the actual words coming out of people’s mouths. Try testing yourself on the eye colors of your friends and colleagues. Chances are good that you’ll see what I mean.

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