[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, April 2013]

We’ve all had the experience of reading about something or gaining a new tidbit of knowledge, and then we immediately encounter it in another context.  For example, in my school years, I once learned about a particular Greek story in literature class, only to be amazed when that very story ended up being the correct answer on a television quiz show later that evening.  And of course, how many times do you hear people say that as soon as they bought a particular model of car, they “see it everywhere?”  Is it coincidence when these events happen?  Or is it more likely that such experiences were always there, we just weren’t attuned to them until we had new knowledge to influence our thinking?

Let me cite an example from the other side.

In one of my past jobs as a counselor, I had an oil painting hanging on my office wall.  While I didn’t expect high praise or admiration for it, I noticed my patients never even seemed to “see” it. At first, I thought it might just be that oil paintings are “snooty” to folk who were generally educated only to the grade school level.  Maybe my patients were more parochial or traditional in their art experiences.  Or possibly, they ignored it because they didn’t share my particular taste in art.  But this was a 16 X 14-inch, framed canvas, and it hung directly opposite the patient’s chair.  And no comment at all?  By contrast, my coworkers would backtrack from halfway up the hallway to grab a closer look when they caught the barest glimpse of the piece from outside my office.  Was it possible that the painting didn’t “exist” in the worlds of the patients?  I noticed they’d look at me, and around the office in general, but their eyes never even came to rest on the largest object in the room.

I began to suspect this was an example that learning literally changes what we are able to perceive; and that we don’t make associations from what we observe if we don’t have the inner world to spark our attention toward particular outside cues.  Could it be that lesser-educated people survey a more blank world?  Or rather, that much in their visual field escapes their notice because it lacks any relevance to them?  Absent formal research to rule out other possible causes–and I admit there are many other alternative hypotheses for this observation–I still think it behooves us all to keep trying to learn something new each day.  If my hypothesis is correct, lifelong learning and proactive self-challenge can help ensure we’re attuned to our world to the greatest extent possible.  If nothing else, chains of little coincidences from our inner world to our outer world allow us to maximize our good experiences in life.

You know what?  Why don’t you try testing my little hypothesis?  All you have to do is go read something interesting at your local library, or check out information sources online–say, Wikipedia or a history site–and then see if you “coincidentally” run into something in your day-to-day life related to what you’ve just learned.  Maybe I’m wrong…but even still, you’ll have learned something new and bettered yourself just a little, huh?  I think that would be worth it for us both!