Seeing Behind Clothes
Do the clothes you wear change how your brain processes information? Yes. But can the same suit of clothes, given a different occupational meaning, change the whole process of focus and how you see the world?
Clothes Make the Man
Mark Twain’s statement that “clothes make the man” distills what has long been known – people act differently towards others – and themselves – depending on what they wear. Watch a woman put a police uniform and you may witness a transformation; watch an actor take on a costume and the transformation expands further.
Humans, like other simians, are profoundly status conscious beings. We react differently to people wearing rags or tuxedos. Yet the field of “embodied cognition” has a narrower focus – looking at how the body reacts to physical experiences.
In the April 3rd New York Times, Sandra Blakeslee, who always writes intelligently, describes recent experiments with students who were asked to wear a white coat.
In one case, they were told the coat was that of a painter.
Randomly, another group was told their coat was that of a doctor.
It was always the same coat.
Next they were tested for sustained attention – a problem in an Internet world, where sustained attention is still required to reach sustained achievement.
Those wearing the “doctor’s” white coat showed more attention, deeper attention, and better processing of detail.
Next, they either wore the “doctor’s” coat, the identical “painter’s” coat, or were just asked to notice a “doctor’s” white coat on a desk. They wrote essays, and were again tested for sustained attention.
The group wearing the “doctor’s” coat had the greatest increase in measures of attention – again.
Change the clothes, change the brain.
The Power of the “Environment”
Environment is a loaded term. Properly it should recognize the extraordinary breadth and depth of our biological, physical, mental, and social world, and how we recognize and react to it.
Much of our reaction is unconscious.
Certainly we don’t recognize the immense activity of our immune system responding to the innumerable and different stimuli it processes second by second. We don’t consciously measure where our muscles our in three-dimensional space, depending instead on implicit memory to get us through walking, talking and texting. Huge amounts of information signals coming into our body receive no direct recognition of any kind.
Yet the effects remain profound. For example,
1. People eating the same meal in a red room eat one third more than when eating an identical meal in a blue room.
2. Students told to study in three different areas for the same material learn more than when placed in a single study carrel.
The huge amount of information we take in – and turn into usable knowledge – includes much we never acknowledge – and probably never will.
And now we discover that just changing the title of the clothing we wear – from painter’s to doctor’s white coat – changes our acuity of perception and mental sharpness.
The environment is powerful indeed. It’s particularly powerful when we don’t know – or acknowledge – just how powerful it is.
While we process immense amounts of information, summarizing and remembering much of it during sleep, we usually don’t recall how quickly or dramatically our brain filters information. The infamous “gorilla experiment” where students asked to count passes of a basketball managed to completely ignore the presence of a gorilla walking onto the “court” is one example of how we “take out” obvious information.
Context also changes what information we believe. People who are told that a green wall is actually grey become far more receptive to the latter idea when everyone around them keeps talking about a grey wall.
Which should allow us to recognize what happens daily – that our ideas powerfully filter what we take in on a daily basis. The late professor of history Paul Boyer marveled that people could forget or entirely ignore the dangers of nuclear weapons even when, as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it represented an imminent threat to their survival.
We see only certain things, and that’s filtered by what we want to see. And many, often unacknowledged aspects of the environment – including microorganisms, pheromones, and light – change our perception of all that lies before us.
So it’s perhaps best to complete Twain’s statement on clothes: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
Did he know about Lady Godiva? Or perhaps he had already foreseen the future impact of Janet Jackson.
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