The Tricks of the Human Mind

When studying the human mind, one of the most fascinating – and at times startling – insights is that there is sometimes a serious discrepancy between the tale the human mind spins to itself, and actual reality.

One especially striking demonstration of the extent of the distortions introduced by the brain’s data pre-processing was given by Edward Adelson, MIT professor of vision science, with the "checkershadow illusion":

permaculture student 1

The Checkershadow Illusion
The squares marked A and B are the same shade of gray
Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This innocent illusion is so extremely appealing because it conveys its profound message in the most direct, most immediate, most rapid way possible: Your eyes lie, and much more than you actually might ever have imagined.

It is, of course, just a simple optical illusion, but it would be a mistake to assume that other major distortions, or "adjustments" do not also take place at higher levels of data processing in the brain. One interesting higher-level optical illusion is the so-called "hollow face illusion": A mask, when viewed from the concave side under the right lighting conditions, will "pop out" and appear convex, as a high-level censorship department of the human mind steps in and tells us that hollow faces are an impossibility.

Neither of these two illusions pose any major problems to us, for they can easily and verifiably be identified as illusions (e.g. by using an image manipulation program in the first case, and a change in lighting, or a shift of perspective in the second), and more importantly, we do not base important life-and-death decisions on our uncorrected intuition about these issues to start with.

Concerning high-level censorship functions of the human mind, there are, however, some phenomena that are far less innocent, which seem to play a major role for a number of important challenges we are presently facing, including, in particular, our environmental ones. Taking the so-called "oil crisis" as an example, it should be patently obvious that this term actually is a misnomer. In what sense could that crisis ever be blamed on the black syrupy liquid? More appropriately, one could speak about an "oil attitude crisis", but precisely speaking, its true nature is that of an "attitude change inertia crisis". So, what high-level illusions of the human mind may be relevant for "attitude change inertia"? Evidence is that there might be something fairly deep at work here – for if it were not, we most likely would have succeeded in getting these issues sorted out a long time ago!

An interesting concept that emerged from research in social psychology is that of "cognitive dissonance". In a nutshell, the theory claims that the conscious human mind can go to great lengths to avoid open conflicts in its beliefs. This is especially relevant with respect to maintaining the most fundamental beliefs that comprise the self-image in which we have invested so much to construct. "Going to great lengths" can in particular include temporarily suspending both memory and the capacity for logical reasoning to shield itself from feedback that seriously questions a "precious belief". It can even go so far as to unconsciously abuse the mind’s reasoning facilities to spin ever more sophisticated logically sounding explanations as earlier lines of reasoning keep on getting debunked. As George Orwell has put it:

The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield. – George Orwell

While we all are prone to doing this – with various issues and at various times – there is a pathological end of the spectrum of such behaviour that is closely related to the phenomenon of "confabulation". Confabulation has received considerable attention in neurological research, with fascinating recent results [1,2].

With cognitive dissonance, a key issue is that the ego’s censorship departments step in whenever our (usually positive) self-image gets challenged, such as when a belief gets destroyed that we’ve invested a lot of our personal time, money, sweat, energy, or emotions in – because it would be painful to admit to ourselves that this investment was a stupid idea. We like to believe ourselves not to be stupid. A striking example of this was documented by the father of Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Leon Festinger, when he, with a colleague, infiltrated an apocalyptic doomsday sect who believed that the world would end on December 21, 1954. In agreement with the predictions of cognitive dissonance theory, those members of the group who made the biggest investments in their belief of an apocalypse showed quite an interesting change in behaviour when it failed [3].

Evidently, cognitive dissonance is a fairly ubiquitous phenomenon, and can easily interfere quite badly with our capacity to make sound decisions. But as with the "simplistic" optical illusions presented above, it is just a fundamental characteristic of the human mind, and as with these, it is possible to correct the misguidance it causes with a bit of design. As permaculture is to a large degree about paying close attention to the characteristics of species and their co-evolutionary interplay, and as homo sapiens is such a potent system component, it makes perfect sense to invest some time in learning about some of the mechanisms that prevent us from reaching our full capacity for making wise decisions – and devising ways to overcome them.

Let us consider the issue of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The question in which ways cognitive dissonance could negatively influence our decision-making – and how to address that – is a valid one irrespective of any greenhouse effect physics. What certainly plays an important role here is that in some circles there is a deeply held belief that man’s ultimate purpose is to conquer nature using the one tool perceived as setting him apart from beast: fire. One somewhat well-known 20th century protagonist of this concept is the author Ayn Rand, and her philosophy of "Objectivism" that shows alarming traits of being a Promethean cult, worshipping fire in all forms, (including the cigarette) and seeing the role of the engineer as that of the holy priest who supplies mankind with all its needs by taming fire. In this ontology, any effort to reduce our CO2 emissions inevitably must be interpreted as a sinister act of sabotage, and it is equally clear that its proponents are bound to fight tooth and nail against it – fire being regarded as the essence of everything that is good. Examples of this attitude abound [4,5]. This excerpt from a book by Ayn Rand is especially interesting:

Observe that in all the propaganda of the ecologists – amidst all their appeals to nature and pleas for "harmony with nature" – there is no discussion of man’s needs and the requirements of his survival.

The lowest human tribe cannot survive without that alleged source of pollution: fire. It is not merely symbolic that fire was the property of the gods which Prometheus brought to man. The ecologists are the new vultures swarming to extinguish that fire. –

It is bemusing to contemplate the glaringly absurd discrepancy between the belief expressed in those lines written in 1971 and the ethical core of permaculture. But the important point here is to note that the structure of such a belief system (and similar ones) fits the setting of cognitive dissonance like a glove – note in particular how the "positive self-image" is linked to a fundamentalist (i.e. "must not and hence can not be questioned") belief in the ultimate role of fire. However, cognitive dissonance undeniably gets everyone of us at times, and hence its role certainly also has to be assessed on the side of those who take the published and peer-reviewed research literature on climate change as serious.

The important insight is: if we want to make any progress on making sound decisions about our CO2 emissions, and so many other issues, we certainly would be well advised to solve another problem first: working out effective ways to eliminate the negative influence of cognitive dissonance.

How to approach this then? Here, it must be emphasized that everything works in both ways. And, after all, if the human mind has this mechanism, there may well be a good reason for its existence. An interesting observation is: those who go to the greatest lengths to avoid any thought that could challenge their positive self-image mostly do so due to an especially low pain threshold for the inner conflict that would arise otherwise. Gandhi understood this point very well. The idea at the core of Gandhi’s approach to conflict resolution is: Always behave in such a way that those who use force to maintain an illusion cannot do so without getting in serious conflict with their positive self-image. He managed to repeatedly demonstrate the – often surprising – effectiveness of this approach in dozens of conflicts, ranging from collective bargaining between millers and mill-owners to the independence of India and an early termination of an intractable all-out Hindu-Muslim civil war [6]. Gandhi’s conflict resolution protocols hence deserve close study if we want to make progress with the big challenges ahead.[7]


  1. "Brain Fiction – Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation", W. Hirstein,
  7. Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, HarperCollins, 1997



7 thoughts on “The Tricks of the Human Mind

  1. Good article.

    Funny coincidence considering your example of Rand: the same day this was plublished, New Scientist published this:

    “I was sitting next to the fire in my living room and I started asking the question, when did our ancestors last live without fire? Out of this came a paradox: it seemed to me that no human with our body form could have lived without it.”

    Maybe we have a genetic bias to love fire. Would explain some parts of human nature, wouldn’t it? Including some nutcases tendency to worship it.

  2. Job,

    Yes, I’ve heard that idea before. Now, a true and dedicated physicist’s response to this question perhaps would be to do a really big self-experiment to test it. It so turns out that there indeed is at least one person who did precisely that:

    Quite an amazing story. I’d actually love to have a chat with that female physicist. Does anyone reading this happen to have her email address?

    Personally, I first learned about this story in spring 2009, and was very bemused, since I just had gone through a self-experiment of going through the coldest part of winter without heating in southern UK. (There were a number of factors involved in this, but I considered it as an important opportunity to learn something. Given that I regard the prospect of transient interruptions of the UK’s gas supply in the coming years as very real, and the UK’s inability to store large amounts of gas (according to a friend who presently works for the government), I really want to know in advance what this would mean for ordinary households, how I would cope, and in particular how I might contribute to avoiding major panic by keeping a cool head and showing people around me how to deal with it.) It’s quite an interesting experience if you’ve never done it before. Lowest indoor temperature I experienced was 3 degrees celsius. Has a number of advantages: You don’t need electricity for a fridge anymore, the roses my wife sent me (who was in Germany at that time) kept for four weeks, etc. However, olive oil turns to olive fat, and speaking of fat, washing up becomes quite tricky if you have to get rid of it (any good tip you outdoor people here)?

    Hm. Is it just us dedicated physicists (for I’m one myself) who have such weird ideas, or do other people occasionally do that as well? I mean, after all, the opinions and ideas you get from the media as well as other people, can be expected to contain all sorts of nonsense if no one ever sets out to actually do the experiment and test them. If you really want to know what the actual truth is, you often have to do the experiment yourself. (I remember one of my PhD students at that time, an Italian, showing great concern that, without hot showers for more than three days, I surely would have to die… Oh well…)

    Gandhi understood this one point very well, the importance of experiments as a major source of insight into what is true and what not. His claim that “any number of experiments is too small” incidentally makes him, in my view, one of the greatest physicists ever (even if education-wise, he was a lawyer).

    Now that I have done my own small low energy living experiment, this completely has changed my perspective on the vast range of options we still have. It’s certainly true that one learns more from self-experiments than from reading books. If I could just get more people into experimenting, and out of that mode of “passive living”, that would perhaps be the most important contribution I ever could make to the present situation.

    But coming back to fire: Yes, there seems to be some aspect of human nature that responds to it in a way that is difficult to understand, in the sense that I’ve not yet come across a rational scientific description of what goes on in our heads when we deal with fire. I’d say the same about other relevant phenomena I also don’t understand, such as pornograpy, say. And, at times, I seriously wonder whether there is something to the thought that we actually “evolved more to run than to think”, and as such, have a particular sub-conscious tie to everything that is about transportation. I do notice a strong emotional component in every question related to the automobile that seems very hard to explain to me.

    So many questions…

  3. Thomas, I am glad to read that you live experimentally. I find your personal story more interesting than your article, believe it or not you can influence far more people out there with stories of your personal endeavors, I discovered that from personal experience and experimentation. Feel free to let us all know more about the real you, please.

  4. Carolyn,

    it’s actually a very simple thing: I just have realized that it often is enormously difficult to get a good idea about what actually is true and what not. That is a question of developing good judgment, and – unfortunately – judgment is one of those things you do not learn at school. And if you think about the deeper role of schools in our society, which are to a large extent about teaching obedience to authorities who “tell us how the world works”, that is not overly surprising.

    So, what reliable sources of insight do we have at our disposal, every one of us? There are a few of them, and while they do not provide such extensive coverage that one could consult them like an oracle, they help enormously for giving the right clues about what’s wrong with a picture, often the first important step: You realize you have to disassemble part of the jigsaw because you mis-interpreted something before, and have to re-assemble it in a different way.

    The first, and most immediate, source of insight is personal experience, hence, experiment. To give an example, when I first came across permaculture some years ago, I’ve read lots of books, and I think I by now have a quite extensive overview over the literature. But those things that really matter, i.e. what part of a plan is how easily thwarted by other agents, such as slugs, or just your own stupidity, I only learned when I started an own garden. Quite small – but it is more about education than food at the moment. Similar issue with the role of pollinators, and the need to provide access to water in a garden. You don’t realize it if you just read it in a book, you have to develop judgment by doing it. (Incidentally, that’s also what I tell my “Complex Systems Science” students: If you want to really learn something about complex systems, you have to work with one to develop your judgment. Start a garden.) With me, it can easily happen that you see me talking about something highly technical such as linear group representation theory all morning, while over lunch, I tell you that the dandelion that grows in the back yard of your institute is an exceptionally sweet variety. :-)

    Another source of insight is the ability to do quick guesstimations. Now, unfortunately, the only time most people work with numbers seems to be when it is about money. I do give courses about that, see e.g.

    The third important point is the ability to let go of cherished beliefs. That is difficult, and also needs training. But the key point is: Once you convinced yourself that X does not hold, and you have compelling evidence, it is just stupid to stick to old ideas and not allow the transformation in understanding to happen. Without this, no progress that leads from one new insight to another one ever could happen.

    Always remember, as long as you have to believe whatever you are told, by authorities or by other people around you, you are a slave. Only if you have some independent way of testing ideas with a hammer, you can set yourself free. The education I give is all about helping people to learn about these hammers, and about the need to improve their judgment. Quite often, the conclusions I ultimately arrive at are strongly at variance with widespread deeply held beliefs about, say, society, civilization, or belief systems. But, at present, people at least listen to me, because I can point out connections few people seem to pay attention to. Sometimes, they even act.

  5. Thomas, on physicists (as a former physics student turned art student), I think Feynmann said it pretty well:

    Although you undoubtedly already know this, it’s pretty hard to ignore Feynmann as a physicist. Anyway, in my opinion a great summary of the kind of mindset you’re taught when you study physics (and the most useful thing I’ve learned during my time studying it).

    And about the car thing: isn’t a common train of thought that the car appeals to our territorial instincts? Just like our home is our territory, our living space, the car has a similar appeal, with the addition of being mobile. Making any judgement on it very personal for the owner.

    Also, Scott McCloud remarked in Understanding Comics (get your wisdom where you can ;) ) the following interesting thing: humans have the capacity to make external things become extensions of ourselves, like say, a car. We never say in a car accident “his car hit my car!” Instead we say: “HE hit ME!”

  6. “It’s an increasing fanaticism everywhere, quite simply because the more complex reality gets, the more will people search for simple answers” – Amos Oz

    Morgenbladet nr. 8 (February 25 – March 03) – 2011

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