“Many of us are living a very narrow life, we have self-inflicted blinkers on. Widen your view, widen your mind, widen your life.”Marcus Aurelius
The information we absorb dramatically impacts how we perceive the world.
A Tale of Two Kitties
David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in 1981 for their work on the visual system during the 1960s and 1970s. In one of their experiments, they divided kittens into two cohorts. They raised one group in an environment consisting entirely of vertical lines. Everything in their world was vertical, from the wallpaper inside their cages with black-and-white vertical stripes to the vertical stripes on the clothes worn by their handlers. These kittens saw only vertical lines for the first several weeks of their lives and were deprived of “horizontal input”.
Meanwhile, the other kittens were raised in cages lined with horizontal stripes and their handlers wore horizontal stripes on their clothing. This second group of kittens never saw a vertical line. Their world was a horizontal one.
The results were astounding. When the kittens encountered a chair, for example, the group raised in a “horizontal paradigm” could perceive the (horizontal) seats and jump onto them to sleep. However, these “horizontal” kitties were blind to vertical input. As a result, they couldn’t see the chair legs and repeatedly bumped into them. The “vertical-paradigm” kittens had the exact opposite problem. They navigated the chair legs just fine but could not jump onto the horizontal seat of the chair because they couldn’t perceive it.
Windows of Perception/Opportunity
The studies highlight how the brain has critical windows of time during which we need to encounter certain stimuli, or we won’t be wired to perceive them correctly. Deprived of vertical input, the horizontal kittens could only perceive horizontal lines and vice versa. When their brains dedicated perception to one paradigm, they neglected the other. The restricted visual input reflected how they perceived the physical world. Like cats, humans are visually dominant creatures, we tend to think, reason, and imagine visually, but do we adapt to visual stimuli in the same way as cats?
Are the lines (on the top) the same length?
Research shows that perception of the Müller-Lyer illusion can vary depending on where you come from. Around the turn of the 20th century, W. H. R. Rivers noted that indigenous people of the Australian Murray Island were less susceptible to the Müller-Lyer illusion than were Europeans. He suggested this may be because Europeans live in environments characterised by straight lines (rectilinear environments) while the islanders live in natural environments. John W. Berry reported similar results in his work on Inuit, urban Scots, and the Temne people in the 1960s. They also used the word “carpentered” for the environments that Europeans mostly live in – characterised by straight lines, right angles, and square corners. (“the carpentered-world hypothesis”)
We have adapted to the theories and practices we are most exposed to in business. One of the challenges for many organisations and individuals is that we have been educated and conditioned for a steady and stable environment. The relative stability of the post-war period, an anomalous period in world history, has contributed to our conditioning for stability. As a result, our mental and operational flexibility has atrophied.
Henry Ford reportedly said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. So if we want new results, we need to change our behaviour which means changing our perception. In turn, to change our perception, we need to change our input. To change what we do, we must change how we think.
While neuroscience has demonstrated we have a “critical window” of perception, it also reveals that we are incredibly adaptable and neuroplastic. To change what we do, we need to update what we learn at every level of the education system. We must change how we measure in a world where a 5-year plan is no longer viable. In a VUCA environment, expertise is more fleeting than ever before. We cannot know everything in a world of abundant information, where data changes rapidly. To rebuild mental flexibility, we must recognise that our ideas are just hypotheses and our positions are only temporary.
As Thomas Kuhn wrote in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, breakthrough moments represent a “paradigm shift” where we see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before.
Shift your paradigm to change how you see your world.
THANKS FOR READING
We are incredibly privileged to host Alexander Osterwalder on The Innovation Show this week, where he revealed a brand-new tool to help change professionals “perceive” metrics in a new way. Roll over “OKRs”; for Innovation, let’s try “AKIs”.