“Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal” – Robert A. Heinlein
(Please note an archive of this article can be found online at http://allebone.org/wordpress/2014/06/brain-hacking-why-everything-you-know-could-be-a-lie-2/)
The brain is arguably the most complex organ in existence. Its ability to find patterns and map reality has given us an astounding evolutionary advantage; having advanced far beyond what anyone could have imagined thousands of years ago. However, it comes at a price: the brains insistence on finding patterns, answers and meaning extends far beyond what is rational. On this journey into the unknown, I hope to illustrate that while the brain is deficient in understanding everything around us, we can give it additional tools that allow us to traverse ever more complex and difficult paths on our quests for and to truth.
It is possible to modify and pry open your mind into seeing more than others; the ones who will not sojourn with us will never be able to see further than the unalterable grid that is mapped for them. But, for us, it is possible to see answers, where others remain blind to possibilities. It is possible to go beyond the illusions and confusions that surround us and look behind the curtain. Why not stroll into the universe of mathematics and take a walk with me…
Part 1 – know thy enemy.
Your brain is able to trick itself into seeing what isn’t there. This is priming. The brain is forced to experience and perceive things through your senses. The world, as you know it, is a virtual map, inside your brain: It is constantly updating and re-programming every day. However, inconsistencies creep in and create impossible situations that stop us from seeing the truth. Let us inspect how the sense of sight can make mistakes in our map of reality:
Your brain will force you to interpret this as an ‘impossible object’. You cannot stop yourself from seeing the impossible. No matter how long you try to convince your brain, you will never be able to see, nor alter your opinion on what you see; to be anything other than an object that cannot exist. But, there is a clue. In all these things we will review, we can overcome our brain’s ineptitude by using logic, reason and critical examination of the evidence. If we learn to trust these tools then we can override the great liars by whom we are deceived – our brains.
The sense of hearing can also be overpowered by your brain’s insistence to see patterns. Take a look at this, known as the McGurk Effect:
It’s a really amazing effect isn’t it? Our brains simply cannot allow us to believe what we are hearing and so it alters our perception of reality to conform to what it already wants to be true. Yet, it goes so much further than this simple experiment. It is, under certain conditions, possible to give your brain an out of body experience – quite literally!
Your brain can be separated from you, or at least; the you, that you know! All of these experiments leverage the fact that your brain is constantly trying to map its surroundings and further trying to alter that map is difficult. When you are subjected to these kinds of experiments, your brain defaults to using tried and tested maps, even if that means forcing you to believe things that cannot be real or be true. Leveraging the tool of logic, allows us to override what are brain is telling us. For example, if one was forced to decide which hand would be cut in the video, using logic, we would all correctly decide that the hand with the sleeve should be cut in order to preserve our own hand. The power that we wield when we become sceptical of our brains ability to map reality is far greater than simply trusting our brain’s without question.
Part 2 – Using science to come to grips with reality.
Ask any parent the question: does giving your child some sweets suddenly make them hyperactive for a while? I was especially interested in this conundrum, being a parent with two boys. At one time I would have sworn that giving them sweets made them ‘hyper’. It’s just so obvious isn’t it? But scientists are clever, and know that truth is harder to find than it first seems. Hence, that they decided to test what would happen if they tricked half a study of parents into thinking their children were given sugar: in reality they were only given a placebo – while at the same time informing the other half of parents the truth. The result: tricked parents reported hyperactivity while the others did not. Our brains are fooled into seeing an illusion and we believe what our brain has already decided to be true. We are biased to our beliefs.
But how do our brains get it so wrong? Not just somewhat incorrect, but the actual polar opposite of reality? It’s a great and beautiful thing that we can now understand, with scientific certainty, that giving children sugar doesn’t make them hyperactive at all. It tends to come down to that virtual map: we get told all our lives growing up that sugar causes us to be ‘hyper’ as kids, that we will not allow ourselves to question it as we get older. Everything from indoctrination to the Pavlovian responses that manifest in certain situations happen. You can’t fight it, but you can realise it exists, and bypass it when you accept logic, reason and critical examination of evidence.
It is difficult to accept, but the same problem is currently experienced with spanking in South Africa. We considered it part of the parent-child norm growing up, yet now we have extended studies and decades of research telling us that it is absolutely wrong and should be abandoned. Will you review the evidence, or will you give into your brain’s confirmation bias and believe according to your own anecdotal map? These questions can cause us considerable discomfort – known as cognitive dissidence – which you can read up on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance). But if you want to go beyond the curtain – the veil of illusion – and actually see reality, you have to come to terms with it. Be prepared to be wrong. If you can do that, then you can free yourself from the chains of your mental map and redraw it.
Not every mistake by our brains will manifest as something that effects everyone. Sometimes, it can only affect a small number of people, such as people who suffer from Stockholm syndrome. These kinds of errors can lead to mass delusions or hallucinations if left unchecked. While as outsiders we can claim that it is irrational for these people to act as they do, it is much harder to empathise. Again, understanding the brain and its workings give us insight into often perplexing decisions made by others. Time and time again we see conspiracy theorists vehemently defend their delusions, or psychic’s clients swear that they have communicated with deceased relatives via their mediums. These victims who have been lied to by their brains and by the con-artist can be saved – given the correct set of sceptical tools to work through the illusionary barriers they have built.
Being made aware of these kinds of shortfalls in our ability to assess truth is an important step in growing our understanding. We should want to know as many truths as we can, while at the same time minimising the amount of falsities we believe in order to get this map of reality in our brain as close to what is actually real as possible. Don’t be afraid to give up some comforting beliefs in order to do this. The journey to truth is worth it, I promise you that.
It is by releasing previous bias that we can learn that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.” Or that Armstrong never actually said “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” or perhaps worst of all, Darth Vader never uttered the phrase “Luke, I am your father”.
Another classic example of overriding and altering internal mapping was the discovery of background radiation. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson initially tried to ‘fix’ their equipment when they found their satellite antenna was picking up a strange static background noise. However they were able to alter what their brains told them should happen and simply accept the evidence. We now know that their decision to override their internal map of reality was correct: they are immortalised as Nobel Prize winners, evermore. Don’t think of having to admit your wrong as a disadvantage. Think of it as a gift! You are then able to re-chart the waters of reality and sail where none have ventured boldly before.
Part 3 – Concluding our journey.
We have made it this far. We have seen the clear and demonstrable evidence that our brain can be tricked, and also, how we can re-evaluate what we interpret using logic and reason. We have looked at some examples of common pitfalls and, perhaps even, some that you were not aware of. We have seen how taking the evidence into serious consideration, even when it leads to conclusions we do not like, can give us the truth of what is real and how important that process is.
We live in a world of self-appointed ‘truth’ peddlers selling the snake oil of homeopathy or the messages of their deities direct from the mouths of their chosen creator. You have a choice. Give in, and live in a world of ignorant, idiotic bliss and thereby conform to the standards and beliefs they impose upon you, or stand with us – autonomous - in the magnificent incandescence of the cosmos as it lights up your journey through this vast expanse.
We are unashamedly the sceptics. The doubters. The ones who respect not the assertions of those who claim to know what they can’t possibly know, but the evidence and we follow it wherever it may lead. The joy of discovery! We have only one chance and there are questions that can only be answered by accepting our own humanity. Take the risk, don’t accept the easy path. Think for yourself and learn the noble methods of scientific inquiry. A universe of truth, beauty and wisdom are waiting for you if you do.
If you want to engage a little more with me, please feel free to jump onto Facebook chat – or if you are also curious and enquiring join the South African Skeptics group, which I am a part of, that values evidence and critical thinking over bias or preconception. Thanks goes to my Agent Bronwyn Ansell for her hard work and dedication in editing my pithy ramblings. All my ramblings are my own and may not be the opinions of others around me. Hate me for my thoughts, not my friends or associates.