One of our most basic cognitive needs is to make sense of the world around us, and a uniquely human way to make sense of what we experience is by “transporting” our minds by shifting perspectives — we have the ability to infer, deduce, and interpret what we experience.
When we engage in conversation, we speak and (hopefully) we listen. But even when we aren’t speaking, we watch, we observe, and we read body language. As we interact with other people, we are constantly processing signals about the experience, and we make meaning through what we see, hear, feel, and think.
The trouble is, we don’t always see the whole picture — there are limits to what we can ever know. And when there are gaps in information, our need to make sense of the world around us is so strong that it drives us to automatically fill in details that may or may not actually be there.
As we do this, we are always running the risk of reaching conclusions or making judgments based on information that is incorrect or incomplete, all for the sake of creating a coherent picture of the world as we each see it.
The result? Misinterpretations of actions and intent. At its best, this results in a small misunderstanding that can be clarified and resolved. At its worst, this can lead to tension, major disagreements, and destructive conflict.
But this is no one’s fault — our brains are literally wired to fill in gaps in information.
We are hard-wired to fill in gaps
A concrete example of how we’re programmed to fill in gaps of information comes from the way we literally see the world. Within your eyes are photoreceptors — cells in your retinas that convert light into electrical signals that are sent through to your brain for processing. The mechanism through which the signals are sent, is through the optic nerves in each of your eyes. In that space where the optic nerve resides, there are no photoreceptors. What this means is that in each of your eyes there is an area that is not sensing any light, and is therefore not “seeing” anything. These are the blind spots in your eyes.
Here’s an example to demonstrate this phenomenon — to see it in full effect, you will need to adjust the distance through which you are looking at this screen right now (the exact distance will vary depending on the resolution of your screen).
- Take a look at the X and the dot below
- Close your LEFT eye and focus on the X
- Move closer to the screen (or move the screen closer to you) until the graphic of the X and the dot is about 12” or 30cm away and as you do so, pay attention to everything you are seeing
- As you move closer or farther away, the black dot will momentarily disappear until you continue to move closer or farther away, at which point it will re-appear
The visual illusion of “filling in”
Did you see it? Or perhaps more accurately, did you not?
As the X and dot move closer to your eyes, the visual stimulus of the dot eventually falls onto the area of your right eye where your optic nerve is located. In this area of your eye, there are no photoreceptors to receive the signal of light to send to your brain, which makes it appear as if the dot disappears when in fact what is happening is that your brain is “filling in” the most probable stimulus (in this case the surrounding white background).
What else are we “filling in” as we make sense of the world?
When we look at the world, we believe we see the whole picture. But as the visual illusion of “filling in” demonstrates, our brains are in fact constructing at least parts of what we see.
The same holds true for how we make sense of what we experience when we interact with other people — we are all susceptible to creating a narrative with details that reflect our interpretation of any given situation.
The less information we have, the more we fill in. The more we fill in, the greater the risk that we are constructing something that is not based on reality or only based on part of the picture.
So what can you do to mitigate the risk of filling in the picture with too many details that are not actually there?
We can all start by trying to take a more neutral or objective stance. Ask yourself:
- What just took place right now?
- What judgment am I making? What conclusion have I reached and what am I basing this on?
- What can I know for sure? What gap of information am I filling in with my own story?
- What might explain why this unfolded the way it did? What would be another explanation for what unfolded? And what would be yet another explanation?
What story are you telling yourself? What part of the picture are you “filling in”?