You might not know what I’m thinking if I don’t say it out loud, but can my thoughts completely change the outcome of your life? Can a scientist’s thoughts about a mouse or a group of mice change the outcome of the experiment using those mice? Could people who are blind learn to see if we (as a society) believed that they could? These are some of the questions posed on the podcast Invisibilia: How to Become Batman

Scientists are finally starting to build evidence that our personal thoughts can have a tremendous affect not only on our own lives but also on the lives of everyone around us. I have always believed this to be true – especially since I work in special education (more on that later), but it was awesome to learn about actual experiments and examples of how this is true.

Let the Blind Lead the Blind

First, let’s look at the juxtaposition of people who are blind needing to be led by the arm while this man who is also blind can ride a bike completely unassisted! You may have seen him on TV before. He clicks his tongue and “sees” by the reverberations from everything around him.

While we may be tempted to look at this man as evidence that people are not affected by the thoughts of others around them, we need to remember that he is an outlier. The exception to the rule. Most blind children are not encouraged to ride a bicycle, run a race, climb a tree, explore the world. Instead, they are sheltered and protected. Everyone is afraid that something bad will happen. And that fear keeps the children from doing a lot of things. Sometimes it causes them to remain dependent on outside help instead of becoming self-reliant. The majority of people who are blind are not able to function in the same capacity as the man in the video – arguably, only because other people have placed limitations on them and what they are expected to be able to do.

This is a big deal!

Like I said, I work in special education. And I definitely see a lot of fear and a lot of “help” being offered to these kids. While I mostly work with children who have learning disabilities, it is the same sort of situation. We, as a society, assume that they can’t do it, and so we do it for them. Can’t see? Well then obviously, you can’t walk by yourself, so here, let me lead you. Can’t read? Okay. Here. Let me read it to you. Can’t do math? Okay. Here. Let me do it for you.

Of course it is an incredibly complex problem. People with disabilities absolutely need help or support with certain things, but exactly how much help should we be offering? And how much should we push them to do it on their own or to figure out a new way to do something?

If there is always a safety net and if they are not allowed to fall down,
they will never learn to run.

What we are really lacking is flexibility. People are not all the same nor should we expect them to be. But just because someone doesn’t see things in the same way that most of us do or doesn’t do things in the same way as we expect them to, doesn’t mean that they are wrong! In the podcast, they talk about how many young children who are blind naturally start clicking their tongues (like the man who rides the bike!) but are told to stop because it is not socially acceptable.

Scientists’ Thoughts Affect Scientific “Outcomes”

Scientists’ thoughts and beliefs can even influence the outcome of a scientific study. In this experiment discussed in the Invisibilia podcast, when scientists were told that they had been given “smart” mice, the mice outperformed the mice who had been labeled as “average.” The scientists subconsciously acted differently depending on whether they thought the mice were “smart” or “average” (note: all of the mice were just regular mice). It’s the whole self-fulfilling prophecy. And we can all easily relate this to our own lives – it all seems so obvious.

On the podcast, they also briefly discussed the importance of touch. We’ve all seen the viral video about how skin-to-skin contact can literally give a baby life. We can’t underestimate the importance of love and touch. The scientists in the aforementioned experiment touched the “smart” mice more often than the “average” mice which could be one of the reasons that the “smart” mice actually performed as if they were smarter than the other mice (even though they were randomly assigned to the “smart” group).

I learned about the importance of touch while working with families involved with child protective services (CPS). At one of the child and family team (CFT) meetings for one of the families, a psychologist was coaching the mom on how to have more positive interactions with her child. The psychologist told her that she should be hugging her child at least 20 times per day. Now I’m sure a lot of people think that you shouldn’t have to be told how many times to hug your child, but for a whole host of reasons that people have written whole books on, some people don’t recognize how important touch – positive touch – is. And so yes, they have to be taught. But what about the parents that don’t know (and never learn) how important positive touch is? What about the kids that don’t get hugged?

Change Your Thoughts, Change a Life

It is so important for all of us to be aware of how our thoughts affect our interactions with other people and thus, literally change the outcome of those people’s lives. We can relate this to racism, sexism, classism – everything-ism. Our thoughts and preconceptions make us act differently towards other people, but if we are aware of this, we can make conscious decisions to change our assumptions, biases, and actions. Maybe blind people really can learn to see – just in a different way.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.

Thanks to angeladellatorre for the featured image of the mouse!