In many ways we are our ancestors. We share the same DNA. We exist because they survived. We have therefore evolved to live in their world more than in ours. Being able to quickly detect threats or sources of food offered them a survival advantage.

As their children, their survival instincts are deeply ingrained in our sensory systems even though many of us are lucky to live in relatively safe affluent societies.

What does this mean in practice?

It means our senses are attuned to keep us safe and satisfy our basic needs. They are not as such designed for accuracy.

Our senses are not designed for accuracy.

Perception versus Reality

Philosophers have long battled with the question of How do I know what I am experiencing is real?

For example:

  • Have you ever seen faces that weren’t there?
  • Have you noticed how a smell fades after a few minutes?
  • Have you noticed how familiar sounds (like church bells) get tuned out?

These are just some common examples of how our senses and brain curate all the various inputs and use experience and heuristics to literally reduce the noise. Too many inputs and we may experience sensory overload. As a result, we may not know where to focus and could potentially miss real threats. The bizarre audio illusion as shown on a BBC documentary shows how quirky our perception that be.

    The Brain’s Role

    In addition to being selective about what it shares with us, the brain also interprets the information it receives. This means filling in gaps and making predictions based on past behaviour. Without these quirks, magicians couldn’t fool us.

    And yet it goes deeper. Our languages both empower and imprison us. Try going for a walk and look and listen to everything around you without labelling the various parts in your mind – cloud, tree, sky, dog. This in itself creates an experience of parts.

    This can then lead to classification and judgement – nice dog, dangerous dog, beautiful dog, ugly dog…. birds chirping, beautiful music, noise….

    This all has its uses, so we can’t exactly turn it off, but it does colour and cloud our experience. It adds layer and context for sure but it also potentially impairs our decision-making.

    What Can I Do About This?

    You might be wondering: “Great, but how does knowing this help me?

    For starters, awareness is power. Simply being aware that what we experience is more experience than fact encourages a certain humility and curiosity in the form of:

    • What are others noticing that I am not?
    • What might I be assuming that isn’t so?
    • How might I be more humble about what I think I know?

    This is relevant when working with others and particularly when there are disagreements or different perceptions. Ask yourself:

    • What would have to be true for me to see the world as they see it?
    • What might they be sensing that I am not?
    • What might I learn from them?
    • What are we all missing?

    Building a Diverse Thinking Environment

    Surrounding yourself with diverse thinkers is also critical. And yet, how the concept of “Diversity” is often interpreted is itself a perfect example of how we make our worlds too small.

    For example, if you hire a team of 10, comprising 5 men and 5 women, is this diverse? It depends. Gender is but one of a vast range of factors that feed into our perceptions. For example:

    • Where did they grow up?
    • What is their cultural background?
    • What was their childhood experience?
    • What life experiences did they go through?
    • What were their early influences?
    • What music do they like?
    • What do they read?
    • What schools and universities did they attend?
    • What did they study?
    • How do they think?
    • Who wasn’t hired? Why not? What different perspectives might they offer?

    Questions in the Image:

    • How do I experience the world?

    • What are others experiencing that I am not?
    • What might I be assuming that isn’t so?

    Want to Read More Around This Topic?

    Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde (link to The authors, who are leading neuroscientists, draw insights from the world of magic and discuss the implications for how we experience, think about and even remember the world around us.

    Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. Just walking through the garden a short while ago – and with the top question in my mind – I realised how much of my experience of the world was in a narrow band in front of me. Behind me was fuzzy and over my head hardly existed. But even accounting for the fact that my senses are forward focused, I wondered how effective they were and wondered: What am I not observing right in front of me?

    What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.