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":
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 .
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. – aynrand.org
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 . Gandhi’s conflict resolution protocols hence deserve close study if we want to make progress with the big challenges ahead.
- "Brain Fiction – Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation", W. Hirstein, http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11086
- Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, HarperCollins, 1997