(Any Guns ‘n Roses fans smiling at the title?)
Brock and I caught the second half of a show on Discovery last night about how easy it is to fool the brain. The first segment we saw had volunteers sitting at a table with their right arms hidden from sight behind a screen. A fake arm was then placed on the table in front of them. The researcher went through a few steps (I didn’t see the beginning, so I’m not sure what all this entailed) to make the participants connect with the fake arm. Then, the researcher slammed a hammer down on the plastic arm. Most of the volunteers jumped. Makes sense. Slam a hammer down in front of me and I’ll startle too. The interesting part, however, was that the majority of the participants claimed to feel pain in their fake hand. The brain was relying on the visual clues and was fooled into believing that the plastic substitute was indeed the real thing.
The brain’s fallibility goes well beyond parlor tricks. The brain is an expert at filling in the pieces, at seeing or hearing what it expects to see or hear and at creating a narrative to make sense of any input. We are not normally conscious of this effect; it happens quickly and automatically. In the case of the situations presented by the show, the illusions were inconsequential. It doesn’t really matter if your brain interprets wet rags on plywood as the sound of raining hamburgers in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I don’t think that misconception will impact your life one way or another. (I apologize if having this auditory trick revealed causes you any mental distress.)
That’s not always the case, however. When you take the brain’s innate tendencies to misinterpretation and to complete gaps with its own information and you add in all of the messy emotions of the human experience, you have a situation that can lead to trouble. We all live in a land of illusion to some extent. On a biological level, it is impossible to process every single piece of information that our senses are bombarded with every second. Our brain takes shortcuts. It makes sweeping generalizations. It has to. On an emotional level, we can try to be empathetic but we can never truly understand another’s perspective. We see the world through our own fallible filter.
The trouble comes when the illusions go too far. When we stubbornly act as though our fake-arm belief is the truth even when the screen hiding the reality is removed. It’s easy to believe our own narratives even when they are disproved. Manti Te’o held onto the belief that his girlfriend was real even though she never materialized in real life. Lance Armstrong refused to come clean about doping even when evidence to the contrary was produced. My ex husband failed to see his actions as wrong even when he was sitting in a jail cell.
To those of us on the outside, it seems so clear, so obvious. But that’s because it’s not our illusion. We are the bystanders who can see both the real arm behind the screen and the false one in front. It’s so difficult to see our own illusions. The mind puts up such strong defenses. It hates being wrong. Once it has decided on a narrative, it will work tirelessly to find and filter information that supports its conclusions.
My ex husband’s need to maintain the illusions was so strong that he attempted suicide soon after being released from jail. A couple of days later, he reached out to my mother via text. A brush with death had the effect of removing the screen for a brief period. One response of his really stands out:
I tried to create a world where I convinced myself that everything was somehow fine no matter how bad things looked. As crazy as it sounds I believed my own bullshit and just deluded myself into believing that everything could be ok.
Again, from the outside, it seems so clear. How could he believe that everything could be okay when he spent every penny he could find, lied to everyone around him and committed bigamy? It seems crazy. Yet there I was in my own illusion, believing that my husband was honest and loving. My mind also refused to see the truth behind the screen.
So, what do we do? Are we captive to these minds of ours that seem hell-bent on fabrication? Well, yes and no. It’s impossible not to fall sway to any illusions. Even by the end of show last night, I was still fooled by most of the tricks even though I knew they were there. We cannot stop our minds from filtering information selectively and reaching conclusions based on experience. What we can do is let go of the assumption that we are always correct. We can be open to the thought that maybe what we are experiencing isn’t reality. We can strive to see with our eyes rather than with our presumptions. And, we can summon the courage to remove the screen once we become aware of its existence. Just make sure you watch out for any hammers coming your way.