The journey to insights has more twists and turns, peaks and valleys, deserts to cross and streams to ford than we generally acknowledge. There is more that is unknown than we care to admit. Mysteries abound, and sometimes we are blind to them because we think we know the answer. We interpret new information by making connections to what we already believe. When we make those associations it feels right, and we assume we have a good understanding—even when we might be off the mark.
“That makes sense.” That’s what we say when presented with a new piece of information that we can readily slot into our pre-existing knowledge. It is like having a piece of a puzzle snap into place. It feels right, and it reinforces what we already believe.
Conversely, a new piece of information that does not seem to fit is challenging. Do we disregard it as aberrant? Or is it the key to unlocking a new understanding?
Sticking to our guns
We pay more attention to information that supports our assumptions and are more likely to reject information that contradicts what we currently believe. This tendency to ignore information that does not fit with what we expect has been observed in many settings, but it is particularly well studied in the field of politics. For example, one meta analysis of 51 studies found “both liberal and conservative participants showed a robust tendency to find otherwise identical information more valid and compelling when it confirmed rather than challenged their political affinities.” In other words, we tended to disregard information we don’t want to hear.
The problem is this tendency to stick with what makes sense or confirms our pre-existing beliefs can hold us back from a more complete understanding. And what we don’t know can hurt us.
We’ve seen, throughout history, how paying attention to information that seems to make sense and ignoring or misinterpreting information that does not seem to fit has led people to inadvertently maim, kill and delay breakthroughs that can change the world. But when we pay close attention to data that doesn’t currently make sense, we can spark a fresh insight that changes everything.
From Ancient Greece to well into the 1800s, European physicians were certain that the body was governed by four humors—fluids that governed our health. Hippocrates, often considered the father of modern medicine, was a popularizer of this theory. In his treatise, On the Nature of Man, he described it this way: “The Human body contains blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These are the things that make up its constitution and cause its pains and health. Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other, both in strength and quantity, and are well mixed. Pain occurs when one of the substances presents either a deficiency or an excess or is separated in the body and not mixed with others.”
The qualities of the humors were thought to influence the nature of the diseases they caused. Yellow bile, for example, caused warm diseases and phlegm caused cold diseases. Treatments such as bloodletting, emetics and purges were aimed at expelling too much of a humor. Likewise, herbs were also used. Chamomile, for example, was used to decrease heat and lower excessive bile humor. And arsenic was used in a poultice bag to ‘draw out’ the excess humors that led to symptoms of the plague.
This thinking dominated medicine for over 2000 years, even though people repeatedly saw evidence that contradicted this seemingly common-sense explanation. It was clear that the treatments were not effective. But people paid attention to the information that seemed to support the theory and ignored that which contradicted it—to the point that when people died of bloodletting or were poisoned by things like arsenic it was seen as a consequence of the disease and not the treatment. That’s being blinded by common sense.
For a person whose credo was “first, do no harm,” Hippocrates’s theories had some very harmful effects.
1874 saw the births of Winston Churchill, Herbert Hoover, Harry Houdini and António Egas Moniz. Moniz is less well known than the others, but he did grow up to become a celebrated neurologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Moniz believed that mental illness originated from abnormal neural connections. He described a “fixation of synapses,” which in mental illness, was expressed as “predominant, obsessive ideas.” In 1935 Moniz traveled from his native Portugal to London to attend the Second International Congress of Neurology. There he saw Yale neuroscientist John Fulton and his junior colleague Carlyle Jacobsen present their research on primate neurophysiology. Their focus was on the cortical function of primates. They had brought with them two chimpanzees: Becky and Lucy.
Becky and Lucy were lab animals that were brought along because they represented the results of an experimental intervention. Before the experiment, Becky and Lucy tended to get especially frustrated if they performed an experimental task poorly and, as a result, did not get a reward. They, especially Becky, would pitch a fit, get agitated, roll around on the floor, scream, defecate and throw feces at the scientists. Fulton decided they were perfect candidates for testing out a new surgical procedure. He had already learned that cortical lesions could lead to both paralysis and involuntary, jerky muscle movements. And he had determined that a “bilateral frontal lobe ablation” destroyed mental skills.
When he performed the ablation on Becky and Lucy, he found that it did indeed devastate their mental abilities. Their performance on tests was greatly diminished. But he noticed other changes as well. The once emotional and aggressive Becky no longer cared if she failed the experimental tasks and did not get a reward. Instead she was docile and unperturbed. It was suggested that she behaved as if she had joined a “happiness cult.”
At the same conference Henri Claude, a French neuropsychiatrist, hosted a symposium on the function of the frontal lobes, featuring papers by neurologists, neurosurgeons and psychologists. In that session Claude concluded that “altering the frontal lobes profoundly modifies the personality of subjects.”
Moniz was greatly impressed, as both the papers and the result of the experiment with Becky and Lucy fit with the theory that mental illness resulted from abnormal neural connections, and that the frontal lobe played an important role. Within three months, Moniz had tried this procedure—which he called a leucotomy—on a series of patients. We know it better as a lobotomy.
There were complications which included: “increased temperature, vomiting, bladder and bowel incontinence, diarrhea, and ocular affections such as ptosis and nystagmus, as well as psychological effects such as apathy, akinesia, lethargy, timing and local disorientation, kleptomania, and abnormal sensations of hunger.” Moniz suggested that these effects were likely only temporary.
He concluded that of these twenty patients, seven improved significantly, seven were somewhat improved and that the remaining six cases were unchanged. Feeling these results strongly supported his theories, he promoted his findings in journal articles. He found a receptive audience in Italy, where almost 200 lobotomies were conducted by 1939. Interest in the procedure spread and in 1949, Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on lobotomies.
It is estimated that over 66,000 people had been lobotomized by the time the procedure had fallen out of favour in the 1960s. Approximately 5% died during the procedure, and the other effects were profound. But it did make some people easier to manage.
Context is king
What happened with lobotomies is an extreme case of what can happen when we filter information through our expectations. It was easy for Moniz to connect what he saw with Becky and Lucy to the ideas and perspectives he already had. He and all the other surgeons who did these lobotomies were not monsters. Nor were the Nobel Prize committee fools.
Moniz looked at the information that made sense to him and inadvertently filtered out the information that did not support his position. It’s an all too easy trap to fall into. We do it all the time, and we don’t even notice it.
The theory of our health being ruled by the four humors made sense for over 2000 years. So did the idea of lobotomies. They made sense in the context. But they were not the best ideas. They were common sense ideas, which is defined as “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training.” We need to beware of common sense. And we need to develop the specialized knowledge and training that sheds light on our blind spots.
On a related exciting note, I’m working on a follow-up to The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything. The new book revolves around learnings from other professionals who also develop insights. The book will include interviews with detectives, spies, doctors, prosecutors, archeologists, and historians about how they develop and communicate their insights.
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