By Ariane David PhD
When I was growing up we lived in the rear of a language school that my parents ran and in which they both taught.
My father’s office was on the left just beyond the foyer of the large old Victorian house that had been a language school for so many years and the home of a wealthy family for so many years before that.
I came home from school one day and passing my father’s office I looked in.
I saw him as usual seated behind is large wooden desk, his back to the window, the cat to one side sleeping on a stack of papers. In front of him were a pair of glasses, his extra pair, and a number of round glass lenses that might have come from a camera.
I watched as he took two lenses put them together and held them up to his eye. He added a third and did the same. Over and over again he repeated this process using different combinations.
Finally, apparently satisfied with one of the combinations he taped the stack of lenses together around the edges with white bandage tape. With more tape, he stuck them to the frame of his extra pair of glasses. He put them on and stood up.
He went to the book case, reached for a book and put it back, reached for another and put it back, too. He went to the kitchen, poured water into a glass and poured it out again. He returned to his desk, reached for a pencil in the middle of his pencil cup and returned it to the very same spot.
He walked around with this odd thing on his face for two days. At the end of that time he announced that he had found the answer. He placed the assembled glasses into his briefcase, put on his eye patch, and left the house.
I had never known my father without glasses, but a couple of years earlier he had started wearing an eye patch that he switched from eye to eye every few hours. I never understood why, although it had something to do with his eyes no longer working together, so he saw two of everything.
But, he assured me, they worked just fine separately if he used them one at a time. His ophthalmologist had told him that there was no solution to the problem except to wear a patch over one eye.
For all the things my father had done in his life, he was first and foremost a thinker. He thought about social justice, the origin of words, the evolution of music, and how the soul and subtleties of light and color could be reproduced on a canvas.
In Europe he had been a documentary film maker, which led to an interest in cameras and lenses. Of late, his interest had turned to finding a way to design a three dimensional movie projector.
It was the latter that inspired him to seek his own solution to his double vision. He had some knowledge of optics and lenses but no knowledge of ophthalmological principles.
Medical science had told him that nothing could be done for his eyes, yet he was not constrained by the boundaries of their knowledge.
He used to say that there was no problem that did not have a solution if one were willing to forget what he knows and change his thinking.
The contrivance on his glasses was his answer to seeing double. From the taped-together stack of lenses the optician was able to derive an optical formula and grind a single lens for each eye. My father never wore a patch after that, only thick glasses.
Several years later, he was asked to speak at an ophthalmological conference where he explained to the assembled physicians what had inspired him to seek a solution to a problem they believed had no such solution.
The way the brain handles knowledge is a double-edged sword. On one hand knowledge is the greatest tool we have for understanding the world in which we live.
The knowledge we possess makes up the raw material for everything we think; it’s an essential component of all our ideas, our decisions, our problem solving and our creativity.
When it is allowed to be fluid and ever evolving knowledge is exciting and inspiring, and leaves us craving more.
Yet, at some point, knowledge can do just the opposite. It can become the very thing that holds us back.
As we grow complacent and comfortable in our knowledge it becomes stale and our brains grow lazy.
When our brains say to us “I know! There’s no need to look further”, we stop questioning and become willing submissives to the tyranny of knowledge.
From your position high above the ground you have an unrestricted view of the surrounding countryside. You see the enemy advance with its archers and siege engines.
When arrows and random projectiles started hurtling your way you duck behind a merlon and only step out from behind it to launch your own arrows.
And therein lay the problem: in order to do that you step into the line of fire. This, sadly, proved the end of many a castle archer.
Fast forward a hundred years when a new architectural feature hit the castle scene. The feature was all about protecting the archers; it allowed them to launch arrows continuously while remaining safe and hidden.
This feature, called a loophole, first appeared in ancient Greece in the third century BCE but didn’t find its way to Europe and England until the 12th century.
On the outside loopholes were as tall as a man but only as wide as his fist.
On the inside the slit flared into an opening or embrasure that could be many feet wide. This interior wedge of space gave the archer room to maneuver and launch arrows through the slit.
He could pivot his body to cover a tapering slice of land below, but only a very small area was visible at any given time.
Loopholes were long vertical apertures or windows in thick castle walls.
The benefit of the loophole was clear: it kept the archer safe from incoming arrows. But it had a downside: the view from any single loophole was at best extremely limited.
And therein lay the dilemma of the loophole: archers had to sacrifice visibility and flexibility in favor of safety.
What was given up when loopholes overtook merlons was the larger picture of what was going on outside the view from the loophole.
Human brains have their own version of the loophole dilemma, and it’s literally built into our DNA. Survival of our distant forebears required that they be able to process just the right bits information at any given time.
Too much and important information would be buried in the deluge of sensory data. Individuals without this ability did not survive for long.
To handle this, early hominid brains developed a strategy that was so effective it lives on in us today. It is a circular system full of red tape. Out of the millions of bits of random data that enter our senses at any given instant, only the sensory information that fits the criteria for admittance into perception is allowed in.
The criteria have everything to do with what has direct and immediate relevance to the situation at hand. This information enters the brain through short term memory (short term memory is really that: it has a shelf-life of just seconds). Of that information, only lastingly relevant information is transferred to long term memory; the rest is discarded, lost forever.
This bureaucracy of the brain takes place within a system called organizing patterns, the real forces for survival. Organizing patterns are the brain mechanism though which all incoming sensory data is classified according to pre-existing patterns already stored in the brain.
Not only is all new information classified in this way, but these pre-existing organizing patterns are the only channels through which information can enter into memory.
These patterns allowed our forebears to react instantly to stimuli (Can I eat it? Can it eat me?) without having to go through a rigorous process of analysis of each new situation. Such a lengthy process would have greatly reduced the chances of eating and greatly increased those of being eaten!
Like loopholes, organizing patterns did a lot for our chances of survival, but as with loopholes there was a price to pay. Organizing patterns gave us the ability to have a clear organized view of the world out of which we could make instantaneous decisions (clear and organized perhaps, but rarely accurate or complete).
What we sacrificed for this security was our ability to see a larger more diverse view of the world. We are literally stuck peering through our organizing patterns. It is a narrow field of vision, limited to the collective information already stored and organized in our brains.
In a circular process organizing patterns alter new information so that it fits into what we already believe. The altered new information in turn reinforces the organizing patterns, and round and round it goes. This becomes our whole world, our wedge of ground outside our loophole; it IS our reality, and nothing really new ever enters our cognition. Change tends to be restricted to a small window of comfort.
There are some lessons we can learn from the loophole dilemma. Loopholes teach us that what we believe to be fact is in reality a small and very limited view of what is actually there. We are limited by the existing constraints of our organizing patterns, and completely blind to the fact that we ARE limited.
We could also learn that when we think we are changing or acquiring new understandings, we are like the archer pivoting from side to side in his embrasure always within the loophole and always seeing just a tiny area.
In order to see a broader view we would need to leave the safety of our mental embrasures and inquire what might be out there that we haven’t seen, the seeing of which might change everything.