The Lessons of Blue Ice

Stepping onto one of Antarctica’s many islands, we were stunned by the otherworldly array of icebergs on the beach. Each shape was unique as if a sculptor had spent hours intentionally creating its distinctive points and crevices. And while the beautiful shapes alone were awe-inspiring, what was most surprising was that many were blue.

Growing up in Wisconsin, I lived in snow and ice for years. While accustomed to seeing grey snow along roadways and yellow snow marking the routes of dog walkers, I had never seen blue snow before. I stood transfixed as my mind tried to reconcile something that seemed as if it shouldn’t exist. It made me wonder what else I miss because it is outside my experience.

Our ability to completely block out what we don’t expect is humorously illustrated in the selective attention video by Simons and Chabris, in which 50% of people fail to notice a person in a gorilla costume walking across a court while people pass basketballs to each other. (Google “Simins and Chabris selective attention test.”) Our minds’ resistance to seeing anything it has not already experienced or is not expecting is not a trivial aspect of human nature. In fact, it underlies of a lot of injustice and limits our appreciation of variety and potential in life.

When we develop an opinion of any group, we tend to see similar qualities in other members of the group, regardless of how they behave. This is how implicit bias forms. After noticing a pattern of behavior, confirmation bias encourages us to interpret their future actions through the lens of what we have already witnessed. Biases can be useful by helping us quickly formulate ideas about patients, but they can also impair our assessment and treatment. Well-documented, inequitable medical treatment of the elderly, women, obese patients, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people stems from these biases, hindering our ability to provide the best care to each patient. On a broader scale, they contribute to injustices at every level of society.

While improving patient care and reducing injustice are important goals, another reason to examine the effect of our expectations is that they limit our joy in life. Expecting each day to be the same prevents us from noticing moments of beauty, kindness, connection, and awe
– experiences that make our lives feel worthwhile and special. Two simple practices can help us overcome these limitations. Concluding each day by asking what felt surprising or meaningful can help us remember experiences that can help us experience life as joyful, consequential or even sacred. And when encountering new situations, we can pause and ask, “What else do I notice?” In these ways, we can see past our expectations and appreciate more of what life offers. Like the beautiful, other-worldly experience of blue ice. V