The Elephant in the Room: Uncovering Our Blind Spots

Most of us are familiar with the expression “the elephant in the room.” It refers to something that is obvious to everyone in that room yet unaddressed between them, often because there are cultural or social taboos around speaking directly to it. Like when you’re riding the subway and a ranting drunk person stumbles onto the train and everyone pretends they don’t notice him. We have all done this. Often, the elephant in the room remains exactly what it is—seen but unacknowledged—because we know there will be some sort of challenge to face if we name it. Since we’re sometimes unprepared to deal with that challenge, it can be easier to leave the elephant in the “pretend shadow”—and in fact sometimes that’s the wisest response.

But have you ever stopped to think that you may be avoiding your own elephant? That you may have a blind spot that is obvious to everyone in the room except you? Your response may be to say to yourself, I’ve never thought of that! I’m horrified at the possibility that I’m missing something so obvious to everyone else! Or you may be thinking, I don’t have any big blind spots, but I sure know a lot of people who do.

Uncovering our blind spots means that what we have completely (or mostly) not seen, not known, or not experienced suddenly appears before our eyes like a huge, clumsy (at times), graceful (at times) elephant. That’s why we hire psychotherapists, read self-help books, take leadership classes, or ask close friends to be honest with us—so we can focus on the gigantic, noisy, large-eared mammal standing directly in front of us that we somehow manage not to see at all.

Interestingly, it doesn’t always seem like a full-sized elephant when we do discover it. It can still be a little hazy or obscured. It can take time to see and understand the fullness of the space our blind spots occupy and the impact they have. But they can be painfully—or gloriously—obvious to others! That’s the twist: our blind spot can be clear as day to our loved ones or colleagues, but it might take some time for us to fully understand that it’s there, and to see its enormity and its consequences, manifesting as the ways we relate to and influence ourselves and the world around us.

Hallucinations

The simple act of seeing what’s there, of finding blind spots, can only happen when our attention is available and we’re not lost in our stories and ideas or on autopilot. Doing things like continually pushing our agenda during meetings without listening to feedback and then wondering why productivity is slow, or not seeing how our constant busyness distances us from our children or how our insecurity drives us to keep secrets from our partner—all of these result in a lack of intimacy and connection.

“Hallucinations” are what neuroscientist Anil Seth says our brain creates when what we perceive doesn’t match what is really there. A professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex in England, Seth researches the nature of perception and conscious experience. He studies the brain as a prediction machine: how it combines prior beliefs and expectations with sensory input to come up with its best guesses about what we sense and experience, internally and externally.

If you think about it, human beings have extraordinary capacities to perceive the world and interpret it. Seth’s framework of “hallucinations” connects to the mechanisms behind blind spots—how we sometimes don’t see what’s there but instead what we expect to be there—and how that doesn’t always coincide with reality. When reality and our expectations match, there’s no dissonance. But when they don’t match, what do we do? If we prefer our expectations over what we actually experience, we see what we want to see and miss what is there. That is the point where we go blind.

In other words, we “hallucinate” when we allow sensory signals to be blocked by the script in our heads: by what we expect and predict. These hallucinations serve to form core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us that run in the background our whole lives and drive our blinded behavior. What if a huge part of your personality or idea of yourself was based on this kind of a blind spot? Wouldn’t you want to find that out?

That’s what makes searching for our blind spots so intriguing! We all have varying levels of self-awareness and can examine that awareness across a spectrum: one end being emotional intelligence—aware of our inner body sensations, emotions, thoughts, and able to act from learned wisdom—and the other end being cut off from and clueless about what’s going on inside (and around) us. Depending on how in touch we are with our inner and outer environment, we can miss a whole lot.

Think of someone you know who is highly emotionally intelligent—someone you learn things from just by being around them—and then think of someone who is so out of touch with themselves that they tend to bring discomfort or suffering to everyone they meet. That is the spectrum.

We have predictive brains that are constantly guessing at what we are perceiving, and the level of our emotional intelligence depends on how correct those guesses are. In some ways, we are like computer algorithms: simpler than our complex environments yet always learning based on new input. To develop self-awareness, the type of data we take in matters, as does the way we approach it. That’s why one person can listen to their team at work and find creative ways to solve complex problems while another keeps repeating an inefficient strategy born out of a hallucination that they have the solution and everyone else needs to shut up and follow their orders. The two people are sorting and processing information in different ways, and they may have radically different stories and interpretations of the same problem, which leads to a huge gap in the outcome.

In other words, how sophisticated our learning is depends on how we take in information. We form mental blind spots when we get stuck in a hallucination: in seeing what’s not there or in missing what is right in front of us. Optical illusions illustrate that our minds can create something from nothing visually, but this also applies to ideas and beliefs. So the manager who is convinced that his way is correct is missing the fact that the whole team is upset and disengaged because he is seeing something that is not actually there: his infallibility, and their ignorance. These sorts of work scenarios are laborious, stressful, and inefficient. But we can learn to learn better when we develop awareness of our brain’s tendency to predict what we expect, and hold our own views more lightly, allowing ourselves to be wrong and fallible sometimes. This creates bandwidth for increased curiosity and self-awareness, as well as more meaningful relationships.

Find out about programs with Kelly Boys at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What's Right in Front of You, by Kelly Boys.