x-ray glasses

As a kid, I loved reading Boy’s Life Magazine, particularly the advertisements at the back of the magazine that promised amazing new abilities. My favorite ad, other than the promise of Sea Monkeys of course, was the advertisement for x-ray glasses. It looked something like this:

advertisement for x-ray glasses

I knew, at some level, that these couldn’t work. But they still appealed — imagine the possibilities if you could just put on a pair of glasses and radically change what you can see. Just imagine that you could put on the glasses and see right through walls or clothes. This sort of magical transformation taps into the belief we all have in untapped potential. Who hasn’t fantasized about having Spiderman-like powers or being able to teleport instantly home from work (or maybe I just have a particularly odd fantasy life…). A more common fantasy might be the belief that each of us has some hidden talent waiting to be discovered. Maybe if you picked up a guitar, you could become a virtuoso. Maybe if you took up poker, you could win the World Series of Poker in Vegas. Maybe that talent is lurking just below the surface, waiting to be released. Maybe we’re all just ordinary people with extraordinary abilities waiting to be discovered (that’s the tag-line for the hit show Heroes, by the way — the theme of untapped potential is central to most fantasy writing).

At a more mundane level, though, the idea that we have untapped abilities that we can release easily plays a pervasive role in how we think about cognitive change. And, in some cases, can fuel billion-dollar industries. The idea that listening to Mozart might increase intelligence or that playing videogames can radically change your everyday memory have contributed to a boon in sales of Mozart for babies and brain training games, none of which can live up to their promise of dramatically improved brain power. We can gain new skills, and we do have an exceptional potential for change, but cognitive change takes work and isn’t released by flipping a switch.

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