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Apr 21, 2014

Never Stop Being Curious—About Yourself

Last week I was delightfully shocked by finding out something new about myself which has far reaching consequences for both my personal life and my skills as a counselor.

I was watching an episode of that Smithsonian TV series, ‘Brain Games’. The theme was how we as human beings have an inborn propensity to follow the actions of those around us. We may think we act independently but much of what we do is affected by others and we are usually not aware of their influence.

The show presented several experiments to give the viewer a sense of these influences.

One was a big pair of eyes. The announcer said, ‘Look to the right of your screen.’ The eyes looked left. The announcer then said, ‘Look to the left of your screen.’ The eyes looked right.

Another was a kind of Simon Says game where the announcer would command ‘Touch your shoulders’ but he would hold his arms straight up.

Another was pictures of 5 or 6 people yawning.

In none of the experiments did I feel the slightest impulse to follow what I saw on the screen—not even to yawn. The announcer said I would—that most people would because our brains are ‘hard wired’ to follow what we see others doing.

My brain must have missed that step when it was being wired. I remembered a similar situation in high school psychology class where the instructor showed us that series of circles made up of smaller colored circles. For most of the circles I did not see the number or letter that others saw—they just were not there! That way I discovered I have a red-green blindness (and my wife is an artist who loves colors!).

I must also have some kind of ‘blindness’ (‘insensitivity’) to the pressure of following what others are doing around me.

This condition has both advantages and disadvantages. Individuals who were completely color blind were used during WW II to detect enemy camouflages because their eyes were not fooled by the colors. For me, I believe my ‘insensitivity’ to the effect on me of what another person is doing (or saying) allows me to quickly identify why a client is having the problems they are. Even in graduate school, when we watched videos of famous therapists working with a client, I often got frustrated because to me it was clear what the problem was which the therapist seemed to be ‘blind’ to—I was not distracted by the camouflage.

The downside to this ‘blindness’ is that, although I can quickly diagnose the dysfunction, initially I have no idea how to help—the client’s ‘problems’ always seem like the most logical response to the situation they are in. I have to work hard to come up with treatment plans that are appropriate for helping the client to make changes.

This also explains why my wife often says that I have no sensitivity to what is going on in a social situation. She is correct! And like color blindness, because of the way the brain develops, my hunch is that it is probably a condition more prevalent in males than females.
Ray McKinnis is a Counselor in Wheaton, IL specializing in anonymous substance abuse and LGBT populations. He can be reached at

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