Say What You See, Not See What You Say

The core business of BlindSpots is to explore the human potential to be blinded or deafened by ideas. It appears we can tip over from describing what we experience to disregarding our own experiences if they differ from what has been described.


The reason Homo Sapiens is the only species we know of that has started farming, building, driving, flying, and engineering genes is because we are the only creature we know of that is capable of communicating in abstractions. 


No other creature is able to label real or imaginary things to the level of detail that we can. It allows us to teach our young to be smarter than we are and ensures that our science and technology only advance in one direction as every young scientist we produce stands on the shoulders of all those that went before them. Our ability to communicate and transfer incredibly deep and detailed information from person to person is a miracle. It is Humanity’s secret sauce. But there are no free lunches; this ability does come with a downside. We could do even better with more popular knowledge of the negative side effects of our ability to communicate in abstractions. 


To be able to transfer information to one another we need to create systems of glyphs, letters, numbers, or other symbols to make up alphabets, build words, attach them to sounds we make with our mouths, and agree on what those spoken or written words are supposed to mean. But they are only representations. A stick-man does not look anything like a real man but we know what it is supposed to represent. 


This all seems very obvious, but in our actual behaviour and decision making, about half of us seem to have a habit of accidentally thinking that our crude, over-simplified representations are more real than the thing we’re trying to represent. Abstractions are only intended to describe the real-life phenomena that are there. It’s better that we limit them to that role and don’t allow them to spread beyond the limits of their usefulness and allow them to make us closed-minded closed-sensed. 


Imagine for a second that someone told you a story. The story was plausible enough; it certainly didn’t ring any alarm bells in your mind. Now imagine that person forcefully urging you not to believe any stories you heard in future because they “got to you” first. This would be a lot to ask. 


Charlie Munger likened this effect to how once a sperm penetrates an egg, the egg is shut to other sperm. It makes sense for an ova to behave this way, but a mind that behaves this way cuts itself off from being able to steer if it so happens to have taken a wrong turn.


There is an even more concerning pattern though. Beyond not being able to change our minds, we can sometimes choose to not see or hear things because they’re not what we already think. 


I call this tendency ‘cognitive backwash’ – your senses are supposed to provide your brain with information with which to make decisions; what seems almost as common is a situation where the brain instructs the senses what to detect and what to ignore. The odds of failure under this method of decision making are so high that it is fair to say that it dooms one to failure in the medium-term or beyond as you are allowing your existing ideas to prevent fresh information about unfolding scenarios from being realised.


It’s like installing an app in your mind that requests:


“This idea wants permission to prevent you from seeing or hearing anything that contradicts it in the future? Please click ‘Yes’ to grant permission.”


Lots of workplaces are divided between those that are tasked with executing on the work itself, and, those whose job it is to forecast the results and measure them after they’ve happened. The former often grumble about and mock the spreadsheets that are supposed to take a guess at the future and measure the past, because, there often emerges a misunderstanding of the direction of flow:


Saying what you see:

Screenshot 2020-05-12 at 00.13.13

Seeing what you say:

Screenshot 2020-05-12 at 00.14.21

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with spreadsheets as long as we take care not to allow the ‘flip’ to happen in our minds from measuring business results that have happened in the real world, to thinking that the real world business is somehow being generated by the spreadsheets. 


It’s not uncommon for actual real-life business to get blocked because of some restriction in the administration tool that was only ever supposed to keep track of business after it happened. In one previous role of mine, we were told we couldn’t compete for business because we were struggling with our margins only to find out after a few months that the customer database we were using was so old that we weren’t able to assign custom pricing to individual clients. This is where the imaginary evolves beyond its remit to the point where it is interfering with reality.


History is full of specimens of people’s ritualistic customs running away with them to the point where people felt that they define how physical reality works. I have two, in particular, I’d like to mention.


In medieval Ireland, due to its position, the city of Waterford dominated the wine trade between France and Ireland for centuries. In the late 1100s a rival trading town, New Ross, was founded about 20km up the River Barrow and started syphoning away some of those wine import tariffs. A violent trade war ensued between the two towns with tit-for-tat raids until Waterford landed the killing blow by confiscating New Ross’s civic mace (like the kind of maces mayor’s aides carry around) which appears to have made the citizens of New Ross decide: “That’s it, we can’t compete with them in the wine trade, now”. 


A dynasty known as the Merovingians ruled over what is now France in the dark-ages. Their culture valued long hair so much that, if a king died and there was competition for the throne, a rival could be soundly defeated if a way was found to cut off their hair; even if they still fielded the more powerful army! There were no two ways about it; if your hair was cut short – straight to the monastery with you! 

I love stories like these because they demonstrate how we can invent abstractions and become convinced that reality is somehow stained by them. 

Might future generations look back at any of the rituals we observe now and be amused by how hypnotised we are by them?


Abstractions, at the micro-level of words right on up to the highest incarnations of customs, religions and political ideologies, have allowed us to cooperate at scales greater than any other creature we know of. They let us function in much the same way as ant colonies or beehives do but with much larger individual creatures. A lot of them have evolved over a very very long time and they have usually evolved for a very good reason; it’s fair to say that mother nature is smarter than we are. But thinking that the abstractions are more real than what they describe leads us to ignore our environment. This should be the limit. 


Abstractions are supposed to be used to describe and/or otherwise understand the world. But over-commitment to them results not just in closed-mindedness but something infinitely worse: closed-sensedness. 
By Cian Walker

5 thoughts on “Say What You See, Not See What You Say

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s