wilful blindness

wilful-blindnessWilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan must be one of the best books I’ve read this year: every part of it resonated with me.

These were the snippets I particularly enjoyed reading..

We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brains simply won’t let us. This means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through or leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, whilst conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.

Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water might be completely random – there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek is formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops.

It’s a beautiful metaphor, and a useful one too. The longer we live, the more we accumulate similar experiences, friends and ideas, the faster and more easily the water flows. There’s less and less resistance. The lack of that resistance gives us a sense of ease, of comfort, of certainty.

Yet, at the same time, the higher the sides of the riverbed grow. As we pursue like-minded people, in like-minded communities, doing similar jobs in homogenous corporate cultures, the riverbed sinks deeper and deeper, its sides climb higher and higher. It feels good. The flow is efficient, and unimpeded. You just can’t see anything.

This is how wilful blindness begins, not in conscious, deliberate choices to be blind, but in a skein of decisions that slowly but surely restrict our view. We don’t sense our perspective closing in and most would prefer that it stay broad and rich. But our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that, as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more – even as the landscape shrinks.

Why do we build institutions and corporations so large and so complex that we can’t see how they work? In part, it’s because we can. Human hubris makes us believe that if we can imagine something, we can build it; and if we can build it, we can understand it. We are so delighted with our own ingenuity and intelligence and it gives us a sense of mastery and power. But the power is problematic as it takes us further and further from the reality of what we have built. Like Daedalus, we build labyrinths of such cunning complexity that we cannot find our way out. And we are blind to the blindness these complex structures necessarily confer. So we forget all about it.

Many people – and not a few companies – like to think that they can somehow stretch the cognitive limits of their minds, that doings lots of Sudoku or using programs like Brain Trainer will somehow enlarge their capacity. They’re out of luck. The only exercise that seems to nurture, or at least protect our brains is aerobic exercise. Yoga, toning and stretching may make you feel good but, in fMRI scans, only aerobic exercise seemed to have a visibly positive impact on the brain.

But complexity will persist unless, like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, someone is prepared to stand up and say: I don’t believe what I’m told. There isn’t anything inherently brilliant about complexity, or any reason why the failure to untangle it should be a source of pride.

We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that wilful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neutrons and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: what could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?

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