What if you were driving somewhere really important? Say to a key business meeting, or an exciting date, or to pick up your kids from school, and you get cut off from somebody in the rudest possible way? What are you going to think of that guy? “Hey asshole, what’s your problem? Why are you cutting me off?” Now, what if I told you that person’s wife had just been in a near-fatal car accident, and they were rushing to their side to spend the last hours of their life with them at the hospital. Did your stomach just drop? Did your perception of the event just change? You see, before you didn’t have all of the information. Whether you believe it or not, your perception creates the world around you. That’s why so many self-fulfilling prophecies are real. It’s a cliché quote, but Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” But I’m not here to talk to you about mumbo jumbo pseudo-science. Why don’t we look at the research and see what it says.
Scientific studies have shown, as well as I’m sure your personal experience has also, that we suffer from a serious amount of information overload. And if you go back to episode one of the podcast, we talked about the biological limits of the mind and how your mind has evolved over the course of human history to deal with this information overload. And a number of psychological studies, textbooks, whatever you may want to look at, have talked about the idea or the concept in psychology. The attention is a spotlight, and whatever you focus your attention on, that gets all the attention, but everything outside of the spotlight is forgotten, or lost, or not really recorded in your mind. And if you look at it in another way, there’s an infinite amount of data available to you at any given moment. Right now, there’s an infinite amount of information that you could be collecting. There’s so much going on and your mind literally cannot handle and process all of it. Within a single second, there’s so much information that your brain would explode if you tried to process all of it. But what our brains do because of the way they’ve evolved, because of the massive amounts of information overload, which by the way, is getting worse and worse and worse. Our brains cut down infinity into a number of finite data points that it then stores, and the rest of that data ceases to exist. And the psychologist and performance coach, Peter Shallard, talks about an idea from Mathematics; that if you subtract a tangible number from infinity, that number has no relationship to infinity. It cannot describe infinity in any meaningful way. And that’s a principle of Mathematics. But now when you think about that, in the context of your perception of reality, your perception, by definition, is a subtraction of finite data points from an infinite amount of data. In many ways, what you really perceive in everyday life is not an accurate description of what’s really happening.
I want to show you one thing that’s really a powerful way to explain this. If you need to pause a podcast to do this, I think it’s fine. But I want you to go to YouTube.com and I want you to search the phrase “Selective attention test”. And we’ll put a link to that down below as well. But I want you to search that. Pause the podcast, the video’s about a minute long, and I want you to watch it. Watch it now, because I’m about to spoiler what happens in the video.
But this video, the selective attention test, now that you’ve seen it, many of you may know it as “The Gorilla Experiment”. And basically what this video shows is that your mind can easily be tricked into missing something that is completely obvious. You’re told in that experiment to count the number of times that the white team passes the basketball back and forth. While you’re doing that, you do not notice at all - or may not notice, some people do, but most people don’t notice somebody in a gorilla suit walks into the frame, pounds their chest, stares right at the camera, and then walks off the frame. And people who don’t see that for the first time are completely blown away. It’s a really powerful way to experience personally how your perception can lie to you, and how you can see something with your own two eyes that’s not something that actually happened. Because that data was deleted out of your brain, it was deleted because your focus beam of attention was on the basketball players in the white t-shirts, it wasn’t on the people in the black t-shirts, or the person in the black gorilla suit that walks out, pounds their chest, then walks off stage.
So there’s a couple of ways that information is lost, or transformed, or distorted that are measurable and validated in psychological research that show how often our perception of reality is not what really happened or is an incomplete representation of reality. The first, the most obvious, is kind of the deletion of data, that’s the concept we just talked about. The idea that your focus or attention ignores, or limits out information because it has to. Because evolutionary we’ve been designed to filter out everything our brains tell us isn’t relevant and only focus on the really important, really relevant things. The selective attention test is a perfect example of that. Because you’re told what’s relevant in this test is that you watch the players in the white shirt pass the basketball around. Your attention completely ignores the people who are in black t-shirts. So you miss the gorilla.
The second thing that your mind does, is that is distorts reality via cognitive biases. There is a laundry list of cognitive biases and we’re going to dig into a lot of them in future episodes of the podcast. But there are so many cognitive biases. Things that kind of shift your perception or you see an event in a certain way. A very, very limited micro-example of a cognitive bias is the example at the top of this podcast, the idea of - until you really perceive everything about that situation, your cognitive bias of “this person cutting me off is rude” is kind of something that is an example, something rooted in your mind that you perceived somebody cutting you off as a rude behavior. So, your perception of that shaped your reality about that situation. But there’s tons of cognitive biases and I’m excited to tell you all about lots of them, but for the purpose of this I can’t get into too much information about them. But your beliefs and cognitive biases about them shape your perception of reality. What you believe about the world shapes the way that you perceive events.
The third way that your brain distorts information, is that your mind generalizes things. You classify people, things, experiences, into certain buckets based on your expectations. We talked about that a little bit when we went into the biological limits of the mind. But your mind will generalize things. You’ll put these classifications when you see someone wearing a certain set or clothes, or behaving a certain way, you’ll automatically make a bunch of assumptions about that person, or about that event or whatever it might be. And that’s an incredibly useful skill, and most of the time it’s super powerful. Occasionally, you will create a memory. You will perceive a reality that isn’t true - it isn’t necessarily the way things really are. It’s only the way your mind with it’s generalization has classified this given event, or person.
And the last, and possibly most insidious way this happens - is that your memories are not real. They’re not fixed. They’re reconstructed by your mind every time that you remember something. This is a quote from Oliver Sacks. He’s a renowned neurological anthropologist. He has a really cool TED Talk about visual hallucinations. But he wrote a book called Hallucination where he talks about many different things. One of which is how memory and remembering are not necessarily factual, or fixed things. I’ll read you this little excerpt.
“Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless, and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience. It is thus hardly ever really exact.”
So if you think about that. There’s these four processes, and there’s more processes than that but these are the main ones that are shaping your perception, shaping your reality. That take this infinite world, the infinite reality right? The infinite universe unfolding before you, and your mind, your perception of that world, is really nothing more than a rough sketch of what is actually happened. It doesn’t contain all the information. In many ways, it doesn’t actually represent what truly happened. It doesn’t necessarily represent how someone really felt about you, or what that event really meant. The really fascinating thing, though, is this imperfect sketch that doesn’t really represent reality, that is constructed by a biologically limited brain, is something that can be changed. Your perception of reality can be changed. All you have to do is change the sketch. You can change the sketch in a couple different ways.
The first is by deleting different things from your focus beam of attention. Which means focusing on different things. When you think about that, I’m sure you know somebody in your life who is always kind of upbeat and happy, and whenever something bad happens, or good happens, they’re upbeat about it. “Things will get better, things will get back to normal”, whatever it might be. And then you probably know somebody else who’s always angry, or always frustrated. It doesn’t really matter what happens, they always find a reason to complain, they always find something that’s wrong with XYZ. And that’s because those two people that might experience the same event and have completely different perceptions of what happens. And that’s because those people, at a subconscious level, are deleting and focusing on different things. They’re focusing on different bits and pieces. So their perception of that event is completely different, even though the event itself, which is external to both of them, was identical.
The next thing you can do to change your sketch, is to distort different things. By that I mean, change your cognitive biases. Change your beliefs. And the third thin you can do is to generalize different things. This is very similar to the second one in the sense that if you change the patterns, and change the filters that you recognize in reality, by definition, you’re changing the mechanism that you perceive and record. Your perception of reality. So, changing your perception changes reality in a real way. And when you dig down at it, what is the criteria that really impacts the perception process? Your beliefs about the world shape your reality. Your perception of reality. The way that your memories are encoded into your brain. Are shaped by what you believe. By the things that have impacted you in your childhood, when you were growing up, what the examples that you’ve seen in your life. All of these things, all of these beliefs that exist not at the conscious level, but at the subconscious level, shape an impact your perception of the world in a very real, very physical, very scientifically validated way. Because your beliefs are the filter. The past, the reality that you’ve constructed in your mind. The sketch, that rough pencil sketch that you have of the vast infinite reality in front of you, is not always perfect. It’s not alway accurate. It’s shaded by your biases, by what you focus on. By what you think is important at the time. By what your life has told you is important at a very visceral and deep subconscious level.
Sometimes there’s a belief nettled at the core of your subconscious that has shaped your perception of reality. Has skewed it in a certain way for your entire life, that has shifted your ability to achieve what you want. That has impacted your ability either negatively or positively to get what you want to get. To be successful. To help the cause that you’re helping, whatever it might be. In a very real way, the limited beliefs that you hold in your mind in your subconscious that have been shaped throughout your life impact the filter, impact the sketch that you have created about the world and impact the story that you tell yourself about what is real, about what your experiences mean. About what happens to you every day in your life. We’re going to talk a lot more about limiting beliefs and how you can uncover some of the limiting beliefs within your life in future episodes of the podcast.
I want to leave you with a thought. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Inception”, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, goes into his wife’s dream and opens this safe where she holds this totem, takes the top, and spins it. You can do the same thing in your life. You can take an idea that you’ve held dear. Something you’ve believed to be true. Something about your past that you’re certain of. If it’s not an idea that empowers you, that helps you, that pushes you forward, you can plant a new idea in your mind. The reality that you perceive, the reality that you think you live in today, has been constructed by your beliefs - has been sketched out by your biases and your perceptions of reality. And you can plant a new belief in your mind. That’s something that I want to tell you more about. But I’m going to tell you about it in the future podcasts.