NOTE: I am in Ithaca today for the first of two Walk To End Alzheimer’s events this week. We’ll close the books on the shores of Cayuga Lake around 2:30 p.m., take care of some data on Monday and Tuesday and flip into full-speed ahead mode for our largest event, the Walk in Syracuse. We’re expecting about 1,500 people then. There’s still a chance to contribute to The Chain Challenge if you haven’t done so already.
I work for a charity that focuses on the brain, and the disease that kill off its cells with aging. Yet, I’ve been focused squarely these days on why our brain does something else; why it allows us to make mistakes.
By all estimates, I’m good at what I do. More than merely serviceable, but not perfect. I make a typo here and there, and I’ve been known to recall jobs from the printer because me, my boss and my boss’ boss missed an error on a print job. Like I said, not perfect.
When I was working in college athletics, I found myself in a particular rut that I could not escape. Basically, everything I touched at work turned to manure. I would put more pressure on myself to be perfect and find that the mistakes would come fast and furious. Finally, a co-worker sat me down and explained the secret:
“You’re not a doctor. You’re not a paramedic. You’re not a firefighter. No one is going to live or die because of what you do.”
It’s not that I shouldn’t take what I do seriously, but that I ought to keep things in perspective. It helped; it’s been a good reminder over the years. It’s like a reset button. Have you noticed that you just don’t make one mistake, that they snowball and eventually swallow you? Eh, maybe it’s just me.
I’ve thought about why I make mistakes. I’m an obsessive writer but a terrible self-editor. I don’t like wasting words or sentences. I like my writing to follow a particular rhythm or cadence. Sometimes I focus so much on what I think I’m writing or want to write, that I often times miss what I actually write. And, when I go back to reread it, it looks fine. Apparently, this is called typoglycemia. For instance:
I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arpppoiatrely cllaed typoglycemia.
So, that’s one explanation.
A team of researchers from Princeton looked at mistakes and came up with the theory that mistakes are caused by bad information going into our brains, rather than the brain itself making an error. So, if you are provided bad information to begin with, your brain is not what makes the mistake.
I can accept this as a partial explanation. If I write something based on wrong information given to me by someone else, then what caused that mistake? Bad information given to them? Good information that became bad information like the telephone game? Or is it because the information originated with someone that is wholly incompetent?
Joseph Hallinan’s 2009 book, Why We Make Mistakes, blames our brain and its shortcomings, particularly in terms of context. He looks closely at the cell phones and driving, pointing out that the brain cannot handle multiple processes at once. Our brains are faulty and we don’t do ourselves any favors by adding distractions (cell phones) when we need to concentrate (on the road).
So, why do we make mistakes? I have no idea. I’m sure there are three or four of them above that I haven’t noticed, even though I’ve read through this piece twice before pressing the SCHEDULE button. But, we are human. We make mistakes. And, no one is perfect.
The dilemma is this. If our brain is truly getting bad information from other sources, how do we program our brain to listen to accurate sources of information and shut out the bad information? And, if what do we do when the bad sources of information are part of the resources that you are given to work with?
I’m still working on all of this. In the meantime, here’s a grocery list.