Already running late for work on a Monday morning, I filled my travel mug with coffee and reached down to the counter to gather my keys and cell phone. Suddenly, I was overcome by a flood of panic. I scanned the counter multiple times as my inner-monologue began to state the obvious: “My cell phone is lost.” I looked at the clock, but leaving without my phone just was not an option. So, I went up upstairs to check the bathroom counter, thinking I might have set it there before my shower. Nothing. I retraced my steps back downstairs to the family room, thinking I might have left it on the charger on the end table next to the couch. Nothing. I took the same path back upstairs to check the bathroom counter again, and then the dresser in my bedroom. Nothing. I followed the same path downstairs, back to the family room, thinking it must have fallen between the cushions of the couch. My panic was growing, knowing that with each passing minute, I was growing later and later. And then I stopped myself, realizing that I was falling into a trap about which I had lectured many times. I pulled my hand out of the couch and stood up, looked around and quickly found my cell phone on the arm of a chair five feet away from the couch.
We have all had this happen. Sometimes we tear our entire home and car apart looking for something, only to find the “lost” object completely in plain view. In my case, I had walked by it at least four times without seeing it. Why?
The answer is something called a “scotoma”. It is a Greek word that Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a spot in the visual field in which vision is absent or deficient”. Basically, a scotoma is a blind spot. What causes them? Usually, we do. In my case, upon realizing my cell phone was not in the place where I thought I had left it, my inner-monologue or “self-talk” made a very specific statement, telling my brain that my phone was “lost”. Our brains are literal mechanisms, so once I told it that my phone was “lost”, it became much more difficult to find because my brain built a scotoma to it. Since I was running late, my mind filled up with all of the consequences of losing my phone, further convincing my brain that we were at a code-red level emergency to the point where I had my hand jammed down in the couch at 6:30 a.m., even though I had not been on the couch all morning. Once I was able to calm myself for a moment, I could re-direct my brain with the information that my cell could not possibly be lost since I had seen it within the past half hour. The scotoma was wiped away and I was able to see what was right in front of me again. Specifically, I used different language to “speak” to myself. Rather than thinking of my phone as “lost”, I assured myself that it had to be somewhere along the path that I had taken that morning.
This is a common but extreme example. Most scotomas manifest themselves in the form of beliefs as to what we think is “true”, based on our experience, upbringing, education, etc. Based on our circumstances, we tend to build up our own “truth” as to how things are, and our brain operates in a way consistent with those beliefs. Scotomas can be both good and bad. Sometimes, we are so determined that we build blind spots to obstacles that might otherwise keep us from succeeding. Other times, we have a belief that we cannot do something, so we build a blind spot to any possibilities or resources that could assist us. Simply, one of our brain’s primary jobs is to keep us sane and to help us see things as we know them to be.
How many times have you argued with someone and been completely astounded by the fact that they could believe a certain idea when you know for certain that you are correct? You can make the best argument and present the most obvious facts, but the other person simply will not come off of their position. It can be maddening! The simple fact is that one or both of you have likely built scotomas to certain ideas or issues based on what you know to be “true”. This can be particularly true in issues when strong emotions are involved, such as relationships, religion, or politics. As an attorney, I have had to learn to break through scotomas, both in my mind and in the minds of others, in order to properly respond to the opposing side’s argument or to help a judge or jury see an argument the way I would like. I have found that the most effective way to clear scotomas as they relate to others’ beliefs is to first get to the core of why a person believes what they believe, and THEN attempt to help them understand why other ideas are not out of the realm of possibility by evoking curiosity. Famous defense attorney Gerry Spence said it best: “I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief.”
As it is, the most important thing about scotomas is simply understanding that we have them. If we can understand that we are not always seeing everything that there is to see in a given situation, other ideas or factors can suddenly come into focus. At the very least, understanding the fact that a scotoma might be involved can help us maintain sanity in the face of what we believe is an irrational person. In any given situation, we must always ask ourselves: Am I seeing all that is to be seen here?
2-15-1977 to 5-18-2014-
John Mazi is an attorney, educator and motivator from Akron, Ohio. He graduated Cum Laude from Kent State University in 1999 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminal Justice. He then went on to study law at the University of Akron School of Law, graduating in 2003 with a Juris Doctor degree. He took and passed the Ohio Bar Exam later that year and is currently licensed to practice law in the state courts of Ohio, as well in the Federal Court in the Northern District of Ohio.
For several years John practiced law exclusively, focusing on the areas of real estate, civil litigation, juvenile law, and business law. He is currently the Legal Studies Program Director at Miami-Jacobs Career College in Independence, Ohio, and practices law as a solo practitioner. Because of his passion for law and personal development, he has been teaching legal, criminal justice, and career/success courses at Miami-Jacobs Career College campuses in Cleveland and Akron with the constant goal of motivating others to reach their potential.