During the holiday break, I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (a highly recommended read). In the book he touches several times on a topic that I find fascinating: reality filters.

I won’t bore you with the scientific details, but cognitive science tells us that we all have special “filters”, which sit between our eyes and our brain.

In essence, our eyes work too well. An incredible array of data and other stimulus hits our eyes each second. The only way our brains can cope with the influx is to impose a filter, which blocks all the data and stimulus deemed “irrelevant”, letting only the “relevant” stuff through.

You can walk or drive down the same street every day for years and not notice the advertisement on the bus stop, or how the pavers used at one end of the street are a different shade or size to those used at the other end. Your eyes do, in fact, see these things, but they are filtered as irrelevant and are therefore not processed by your brain.

Similar filters affect our other senses.

The net result of all this is that no two individuals experience the same event in an identical manner. There will always be differences, some subtle, others major, according to how each individual’s filters are calibrated to filter “irrelevant” information. Importantly, this filtering happens subconsciously – it takes concerted efforts to become aware of what is being filtered out. 

Unfortunately, I have experienced this phenomenon directly.

A few years ago, I set up my first Sydney-based office on William Street, in Darlinghurst – a fairly major road through inner Sydney. One of my employees was involved in an accident – she was struck by a car crossing the street on her way back from a lunch break. I received a call and went to the scene of the accident. She was okay – no broken bones, but was in shock and needed medical attention. After organising an ambulance, I set about collecting the name and contact details of the witnesses (once a lawyer, they say, always a lawyer).

There were four witnesses. As I spoke to each, I was amazed at just how varied their recollections of the accident – which had only happened 15 minutes earlier – were. Each told their story from a different perspective. One witness had noticed how fast the car was travelling, and his observations centred around that. Another witness noticed what happened after impact, and her observations focused on that.

I spoke to four witnesses and, with the exception of two common elements (the car and the injured party) you would swear they all saw different accidents.

This is a very common phenomenon, partly explained by the “reality filter” we all carry in our head. It doesn’t matter if the situation involves a car accident, a football game or a business meeting, each participant, each observer, will have a different perception of what took place.