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How often do you think about what you fail to notice?

Today is March 27 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you think about what you fail to notice?” Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing noted “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

Navigating the chaos and leveraging your mind, body, and spirit requires a substantial level of self-awareness to recognize what it is you fail to notice. Laing wrote extensively on mental illness, specifically the experience of psychosis which is a condition of the mind that results in difficulties determining what is real and what is not real. Laing's views on the causes and treatment of psychopathological phenomena were influenced by his study of existential philosophy and ran counter to the chemical and electroshock methods that had become psychiatric orthodoxy.

This failing to notice concept can trace its roots back thousands of years to the origins of Buddhism. According to legend Siddhārtha Gautama belonged to the Kshatriya clan of the Sakya and born in Lumbini near Kapilavastu in Nepal. His father was the king of the Sakya clan and believed his son to be destined to be a great king himself. The king confined his son the prince to live within the palace walls and surrounded him with earthly pleasures of women, food, and luxury. This allowed the king to conceal the realities of life from his son.

After leading a sheltered existence surrounded by luxury and pleasure in his younger years, Prince Siddhārtha, according to legend, ventured out of his palace for the first time at the age of 29. He set off from the palace to the city in a chariot, accompanied by his charioteer Channa. On this journey he first saw an old man, revealing to Siddhārtha the consequences of aging. When the prince asked about this person, Channa replied that aging was something that happened to all beings alike. The second sight was of a sick person suffering from a disease. Once again, the prince was surprised at the sight, and Channa explained that all beings are subject to disease and pain. This further troubled the mind of the prince.

The third sight was of a dead body. As before, Channa explained to the prince that death is an inevitable fate that befalls everyone. After viewing these three sights, Siddhārtha was troubled in his mind and sorrowful about the sufferings people endure in life. After experiencing these three life situations of aging, suffering, and dying, Siddhārtha came upon the fourth sight, an ascetic or holy man, some who lives a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, who had devoted himself to finding the cause of human suffering. This sight gave him hope that he too might be released from the sufferings arising from being repeatedly reborn, and he resolved to follow the ascetic's example.

After observing these four sights, Siddhārtha returned to the palace, where a performance of dancing girls was arranged for him. Throughout the performance, the prince kept thinking about the four sights of sickness, aging, death, and the holy man. In the early hours of morning, he finally looked about him and saw the dancers asleep and in disarray. The sight of this drastic change strengthened his resolve to leave in search of an end to the suffering of beings. Siddhārtha then left the palace to begin an ascetic life, at the end of which he attained enlightenment as Gautama Buddha.

The legend of Buddha illustrates what R. D. Laing would write about thousands of years later: “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” Siddhārtha had a limited knowledge of the world because his father kept him in a sheltered existence. Siddhārtha failed to notice aging, sickness, death, and holy man because he failed to notice that he failed to notice. It was impossible for him to change because he was simply unaware that he was unaware. The four sights woke Siddhārtha up to reality, and according to legend, altered the course of human history.

Modern researchers have spent a good deal of time examining why people fail to notice that they fail to notice. One of the more famous examples of recent studies is called “the invisible gorilla.”

To test someone’s ability to ‘notice that you fail to notice,’ researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons devised an experiment in the 1990s entitled "the invisible gorilla." In their study participants were asked to watch a video in which two teams, one in black shirts and one in white shirts, are passing a ball. The participants are told to count how many times the players in white shirts pass the ball. Mid-way through the video, a gorilla walks through the game, stands in the middle, pounds his chest, then exits.

Then, study participants are asked, "But did you see the gorilla?" More than half the time, subjects miss the gorilla entirely. More than that, even after the participants are told about the gorilla, they're certain they couldn't have missed it. "Our intuition is that we will notice something that's that visible, that's that distinctive," explains Simons, "and that intuition is consistently wrong."

Chabris and Simons conducted one of psychology’s most famous experiments and discovered remarkable stories and counterintuitive scientific findings to demonstrate an important truth: Our minds don’t work the way we think they do. We think we see ourselves and the world as they really are, but we’re actually missing a whole lot. Chabris and Simons published their findings in their 2010 book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.

While “the invisible gorilla” test sheds some important light on how our mind works, or perhaps doesn’t work, it does not involve a life and death situation. For individuals who ‘fail to notice that they fail to notice’ because of texting, however, such a lack of awareness can be deadly. Research conducted by Sarah Simmons and her colleagues in 2020 studied results from 17 different experiments that included a total of almost 900 pedestrians.

Simmons and her colleagues found that people who walked while texting or browsing on their smartphones were more likely to get hit by a car (or to have a close call) than those who walked while not using their phones. Even just talking on the phone led to a small increase in almost or actually getting hit by a car.

Today’s reflection challenges us to stop and think about what we fail to notice and how that impacts our decision-making process. In some life situations, it could be deadly.

  • How often do you remind yourself that you do not know what you do not know and fail to notice what you fail to notice? This question may at first appear difficult to comprehend so stay with it for a while and let it sink in before answering.

  • How has the range of what you think and do been limited by what you fail to notice?

  • Do you even spend time thinking about your range of thinking? If not, why not?

  • Why do you think it is so difficult for people to understand the concept “we fail to notice that we fail to notice?”

  • Have you been stuck in a situation unable to change? Why do you think you are unable to change?

  • After today’s reflection, how likely are you to now think about what you fail to notice as a means to change your life situation?

  • Have you ever helped anyone see something that they were unable to notice?

  • Are you open to having others help you see something that you are unable to notice?


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