When Seeing Is Not Believing

For decades, studies of how our brains work by neurophysiologists and psychologists have turned up a massive User's Manual that seems to explain how and why we think the way we do, the nature of our subconscious, how emotions affect our perceptions, and even why superstitions and magical thinking exist as a result of their good survival value. The reason that so many people distrust these findings is that they sometimes tell us unpleasant things about our deepest-held beliefs about who we are.


Colorized version of woodcut created by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion in 1888

Free Will Seems to Be an Illusion

You get up from your chair and go over to the refrigerator to get a glass of water. Then you come back to the computer and continue reading. You will say that you "made up your mind" to have a drink and freely chose to interrupt your reading at that particular moment to quench your thirst. From brain research, the undeniable fact is that a split-second before the thought of the drink entered your consciousness, your brain was already getting ready to put this plan into action. To you it seemed like a perfectly conscious act of free will, but in fact this action was launched by unconsciousness activity and you went along for the ride by creating the idea that you were consciously exercising free will. Your body was the follower of an unconscious plan, not its leader! There is a whole universe of unconscious choices made by us whenever we act. What we actually do is act on one of many possible urges that our subconscious formulates for us as a possible action to take. We don't spontaneously come up with a "free will" action and then set in motion the steps our bodies need to carry it out.

Humans Are Horrible Eye-Witnesses

More than 2,000 studies on eyewitnesses in recent decades have determined that recollections are prone to decay, distortion and suggestion. Human memory does not work like a video recorder. Because memories are stored in organic networks of neural interconnections, they are dynamic things that have to be reconstructed like pieces in a puzzle. In a recent experiment on the neural basis of memory recall by Dr. Karim Nader at McGill University, each time you recall a memory from your past, the recall alters the memory. Eventually memories that are most frequently recalled can actually become "noisy" and less accurate over time. As Kat McGowan writes in Discover Magazine:

Every time we remember, it seems, we add new details, shade the facts, prune and tweak. Without realizing it, we continually rewrite the stories of our lives. Memory, it turns out, has a surprising amount in common with imagination, conjuring worlds that never existed until they were forged by our minds.

This is a particularly nasty capacity because, armed with a little bit of emotional trauma, human memory can be molded to believe just about anything, and we will absolutely believe that we were a participant in the event exactly as we remember it. No amount of logical argument seems to convince us otherwise.

We Make Stuff Up and Confuse This With the 'Real World'

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman proposed the idea of System 1 and System 2 thinking to explain certain economic decisions that we make. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow he describes how System 1 relies on shortcuts, rules of thumb and intuitive thinking that is largely unconscious, while System 2 is a conscious process that relies on analytical thinking and tends to be slower and, most importantly, requires more effort. In their book Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness psychiatrist Joel Gold of New York's Bellevue Hospital and his brother Ian Gold of McGill University took Kahneman's idea one step further and proposed that humans really are "of two minds" about their experiences. You have a System 1 worldview inside your brain that is different from your System 2 worldview. System 1 is susceptible to fantasy and imagination and has to be overruled by the rationalism of System 2 in order for you to operate safely in the physical world. Also, because System 1 thinking requires little effort while System 2 thinking does, it is harder for us to perform or enjoy mathematics. According to the Gold brothers in their book Suspicious Minds, we become delusional when communication between the two thinking systems breaks down. When these worldviews overlap, it is harder for us to discern fantasy from reality, especially if we consider System 1 thinking (emotions, beliefs, traditions) to be superior. This happens by subtle degrees of thinking rather than one major change; moreover, our very own culture rather than brain biology can push us over the delusional edge. But the story doesn't end here. The implication is that our beliefs and convictions are far more malleable than we think. It is not surprising that politicians and astrologers use this malleability against us all the time by couching discussions in "passionate" System 1 terms rather than "rational" System 2 terms... and we fall for it every time!

If You Are Stupid, You Don't Know It!

In 1999 David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University uncovered a new twist on what psychologists call "illusory superiority," in which humans delude themselves about how competent they are. They tested a sample of undergraduates in humor, grammar and logical reasoning skills, then showed them their scores. They then asked them to rank themselves compared with others taking the tests. Those in the highest-ranked groups underestimated their rankings on the high end, but the lowest-performing 12th-percentile students inflated their ranking substantially, jumping from the 12th percentile to the 62nd! According to Dunning, "If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent. ... [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is."

So the next time you think you are certain of some event or your understanding of some complex phenomenon in nature, think again. You may not have had the free will by yourself to reach that understanding. This is why the communal effort of thousands of scientists for 500 years has helped us short-circuit these biases and see the world around us with such incredible clarity.