Reality and illusion

We think we know what “reality” is.  So people say that they “know” how to make decisions, they “know” what markets will do, they “know” what is true. 

Often they base this on the fact that they are “logical” (which they aren’t).  But sometimes they base it on what they “know” in the world.  The problem is, what we “know” isn’t always true.  That’s why things like the McGurk effect and other illusions work.  And experience doesn’t help, even if you work with that effect for 20 years and you know what you “see and hear” isn’t true, you still see and hear it.

The thing is, our brains evolved to keep us safe, to predict what was going to happen so we could act in time.  Visual illusions don’t work the way we know the world works, so we don’t see what is there, we see what we “know” ought to be there.  What we “consciously” analyse and assess (with our without “logic”) is not an objective “truth” in the world but our interpretation of it based on our evolved brains.  We think we see the world “as it is”, but we don’t. 

It’s hard to convince people that this is what happens.  Our conscious minds are extremely good at making up plausible explanations for things that we see, do, think, believe or feel, but those explanations don’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the real reasons. 

Here’s an excerpt from some work by Michael Gazzaniga, a psychologist who did a lot of work with “split brain” patients, who had had the two hemispheres of the brain separated (a way to control severe epilepsy)

“Each hemisphere was shown four small pictures, one of which related to a larger picture also presented to that hemisphere. The patient had to choose the most appropriate small pictureWe then asked the left hemisphere – the only one that can talk – why the left hand was pointing to the object. It really did not know, because the decision to point to the card was made in the right hemisphere. Yet, quick as a flash, it made up an explanation. We dubbed this creative, narrative talent the interpreter mechanism.”


Gazzaniga, 2002

So we can always explain what we do, why we do it, why it is a good idea.  It’s just that the explanation bears as much relation to the “truth” as Jeffrey Archer’s autobiography does!

We don’t think the way we think we do, and we don’t know what we think we know.  So when somebody says they “know”, what you should do with your money – ask them how they know what they know and think what they think – and then ignore them!

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