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The Black Dot Experiment: How Does Our Perception Shape Our Reality?

I saw a video recently that potently illustrates how what we see and believe forms our world view. A teacher presented her students with a sheet of white paper with a black dot in the center. She asked them to describe in writing what they saw. When they completed the task, she read some of them and found they all focused on the dot and not the white space around it. She likened it to the idea that many people only see the block and not the way to get around it to their destination.

Negativity begets negativity. When people only see impediments, depression is more likely to take hold and maintain its grip. For those I have worked with who have this diagnosis, life can look pretty dark.

Imagine a pair of glasses sitting by your bedside table. You pick them up and place them on your face and then squint because your vision seems distorted. It takes a few minutes until you realize that they are smudged. You have a decision to make. Do you clean them, or do you allow them to remain smeared? The logical choice is to wipe them off. Sadly, some people would sooner complain that they can’t see than take the moment to make a positive change.

I see folks with this mindset often in my therapy practice. Part of our shared task is to have them notice the smudges, decide if they want to keep them and if not, pick up a proverbial cloth. It can take the form of long-held beliefs that people in their lives do them wrong and then they wonder why they continue to attract the same experiences, friends or partners.

There are some I have heard say, “It’s just not my day/year,” to which I have responded, “What I want to know is whose day is it and who has your day?” They do the cartoon character head shake; think Scooby-Do. It is as if they are attempting to make sense of it all. I chalk some of it up to culturally reinforced figures of speech. What if every day was your day?

Last week I spoke at a support group for people who had experienced Traumatic Brain Injury. A woman who had a stroke a few years earlier was there with her husband. Their shared attitude was stellar. Although she was still in a wheelchair and her left side had residual paralysis, they did an exercise each Sunday night. They called it their gratitude dinner at which they reviewed all that they were thankful for from the week. It kept their chins up when they could easily have hit the ground and remained there.

A few days ago, I had a grocery store encounter. I was perusing the aisles and an employee named Scott approached me pushing a pallet of ice cream. He smiled and said, “How’re you doing, young lady?” My standard response is, “Life is grand.” He volleys back with, “You must be a lucky lady. ” I tell him that I create my own luck and have a choice about my attitude. I then rattle off some life events…widowed at 40, single mom, both parents gone, lost my home in Hurricane Andrew in Homestead, Florida, had a heart attack and other medical issues. A dear friend is living with cancer. I was officiating at an anniversary memorial service for another long-time friend/family member that day. And yes, in the face of all that, I feel blessed and life is indeed grand.

Scott said, “I never thought of it that way.” Now he can. When he wasn’t looking, I left a feather on his cart to remind him.

Does environment mold us as well? If you grew up in a home in which people were perpetually pessimistic, might you take on those characteristics, or finding it unpleasant, making a concerted effort to alter your choices? Conversely, if your family were cockeyed optimists, it might be easier to see the world in that way. Consider that the glass is neither half full nor half empty, but instead all full, since even if it is half-filled with water, the other half is air. I am glad that I grew up in a home where, despite challenges at times, I learned resilience. One of my father’s favorite aphorisms was, “If that’s the worse thing that ever happens to you, you’ll be alright.”

A few years ago, I saw a movie that forever changed the way I will look at happiness. It is called Happy: The Movie. It was shown in theaters only one time and then released on DVD. Sitting in a mostly empty theater with three friends I watched this documentary, enraptured with the concept.

I had long known that happiness is a choice. It sets the stage with the idea that 50% of our happiness is hardwired; it’s what we are born with, 10% are the life occurrences along the way and 40% is what we decide it all means. Produced by Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty, Patch Adams) and directed by Roco Belic (Ghengis Blues), it takes the viewer on a worldwide adventure that explores the nature of this state that so many seek, and few achieve for very long.

An opening scene is of a rickshaw driver in Calcutta, India, who explains that in the midst of the harsh conditions he faces on the job, his sense of happiness lies in knowing that when he returns home each night to his ramshackle dwelling, he is embraced by his family and neighbors who are his true source of wealth. It would be easy to think that he would be miserable. Instead, he is grateful for his blessings.

Imagine a lump of clay in front of you. What will you sculpt with it? Knowing that you have an infinite imagination, there is always a choice, to allow it to sit in its current state, complaining that it isn’t attractive or design a masterpiece. Beauty is in the eye and mind of the beholder. What will you create?

The Black Dot Experiment: How Does Our Perception Shape Our Reality?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). The Black Dot Experiment: How Does Our Perception Shape Our Reality?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Nov 2018 (Originally: 23 Aug 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Nov 2018
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