More Mind Games

Yesterday, I had a fun post on how easily our perceptions can play mind games on us – looking at optical illusons.  Of course, optical illusions, at least of the ‘fun’ type, are just the tip of the iceberg!

The post showed, I hope, just how easy it is for our eyes to be tricked. 

Our brains are wonderful, comples structures.  They take the information from our eyes, and process it.  It is this processing of information which ‘tricks’ our mind.  Why?  Because our brains have developed some mightily useful ways of ‘figuring things out’ without telling us.  At least, without telling that conscious part of our thoughts we often think of as ‘us’. 

Yes, it is a form of subconscious ‘prejudice’ system – but it is precisely through this type of ‘pre-judgements’ that let humans  anticipate what is likely to happen next, so as to react in the best, most advantageour (to survival) way.  {Aside:  it is precisely because so many of our bad prejudices are also rooted this very deeply, among other survival tools, that we have a hard time recognizing our own ones… and why it is healthy for us to see other people’s ‘obvious’ prejudice openly, so we may learn to recognize our own bad/destructive/unreasonable prejucices and guard against acting on them.  But, that is for another day…}

When our brain gets some input, it matches this input to ‘past experiences’, compares patterns, looks for similarities.  It then interprets this new inputas best as it can – with respect to all the stored past experiences! And it does so quickly, without us even noticing it is doing it…

That is why we find it so hard to ‘wrap our brains’ around something completely new and outside of our experiences:  our brain has nothing to match it to, and would be just as happy ‘not noticing it’…

The immortal Douglas Adams was quite fascinated by this phenomenon.  And, as was his way, he used humour to get his point across… Please, indulge me (highly paraphrased):

The story went something like this:  A guy had a bet with some people about erecting an invisibility field on the mountain that blocked his view…  It was no easy thing, and in the end, the nay-sayers had lost, because even though the mountain could no longer be seen, there was now a suspicious new moon in low orbit, just about the size of that mountain…  Douglas Adams said that trying to generate an ‘invisibility field’ was silly, that is just so very troublesome.  It would have been much easier to simply paint the mountain pink during the nighttime and erect an S.E.P. field on it.

What is an S.E.P. field?  It simply means ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ – anything that is ‘unusual’ or appears’ unexpected, and has this S.E.P. field on it – will be less than invisible!  People will look straight through it and not see it!  Their brain will just process it as ‘somebody else’s problem’ and refuse to acknowledge its existence…

Seems to me that this is one take on the whole ‘mind tricks’ phenomenon I am trying to get at.  Can’t relate to it – it’s not there. 

But, there are way more sinister uses of this ability we, people have, to interpret what we see according to familiar patterns.  This can be seriously abused by people with very particular – and not always honourable – aims.

Just like we can be tricked by a simple optical illusion, we can be tricked into seeing ‘things’ that never happened.  And once people ‘see things for themselves’, they accept them as true… and belieave them.

All our actions are based on what we perceive.  Not on facts – only on what we think are the acts. Not on truth, because we have no way of separating truth from our very distorted – and sometimes intentionally tricked – perceptions of the truth, on what we think the truth is.

A lie repeated often enough will eventually appear to us as the truth (it’s precisely this ‘previously encountered pattern’ matching thing in our subconsciousness that does this!). 

Conversly, a truth never heard of, will never be considered when one makes decisions.  After all, we can only decide on our best understanding of the truth…

Perhaps it is time we took a moment and re-evaluated just how easy it is for our brains to become victims of ‘mind games’…


The following is a painfully accurate description of one painful ‘creative’ process  people with Aspergers Syndrome undergo when ‘writing stuff up’:

You have found the perect topic – or perhaps it has been assigned to you.  Either way, you spend weeks figuring out the best angle from which to approach it, because that will determine what you need to read up on and how you organize your thought.  You read anything and everythig related to it, until you find just the most perfect way to present the main idea.

The brain engages, and does not let go!  Not for a little bit.  You even dream about it – if you can sleep at all!  You find yourself reading tons of stuff you realize you should have read long ago, because it added important data that needs to be included in the analysis of whatever it is you are thinking about – and you had already started thingking about it!

OK, re-organize the data in your brain and push the re-start button on the analysis process!  Oh, and all that stuff you wrote up yesterday – well, might as well re-read it before tossing it out….but wait!  This bit – let me ‘Google’ it, it needs to be expanded on so the reader does not become confused!  Oh, you’d better read that, too!

Then you realize that five or six years ago, you read a book or an article on an unrelated topic, but which could be used as an effective parallel – so you spend several hours hunting it down.  Better to also read a few of the underlying studies – to get a feel for the raw data, and thus better understand the reasoning underlying the analysis.  Right.  More data to add, re-start the analysis thinking bit again.

You think you have it:  and tell a friend about it.  It helps to bounce ideas back and forth – not just for the plausibility of your conclusions, but – and perhaps most importantly – to see if there are whole huge chunks of ‘stuff’ you did not explain, because it seemed ‘obvious’ or ‘common knowledge’ to you – yet which do not appear so to people who have not obsessively immersed in this topic for several weeks/months/years.  It is surprising to you how all these people could live happily without intimate knowledge of ‘whatever the topic topic happens to be’!

Your friend has no idea what you’re talking about – so you make a mental note to read up on ‘lay terms’ used to express ‘your stuff’.  More reading, learning how to dumb-down perfectly clear and precise phrases into common words which have layers of meanings, and so can never accurately describe anything exactly and unequivocally.  You’ll just have to compensate by expanding the section where you explain in detail how the words are used in your article.  It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best that can be hoped for.  Better add a paragraph or two to each sub-section, with more detailed explanations, or the whole point will have been lost.

Right.  Your deadline was a week ago – so even though you know you have a lot more to read up on to make an truly accurate analysis, you’d better get stuff down on paper.  Better include a paragraph or two to explain what you did not get to read up on, so people know and can compensate for it.  Sloppy…  But better than being misleading!

So, you write it up.  It is there, it took days of writing.  It is still terrible, even though you re-wrote each sentence four or five times, re-edited each paragraph to accomodate each sentence re-write, then adjusted the whole document to the changes in the paragraph. But, the basic ideas are there.  Good!

Almost ready.  Now, you just need to edit it down to under 2 pages….which is going to be a little hard.  You now have 78 of them, and that is in very small font in an effort to shrink it.  That will NEVER work!

Perhaps, you decide, you will pick a different topic…

Nature of ‘Faith’

In the last two posts, I looked at an alternate explanation of some statements in the Bible.  As the feedback showed, some Christians believe these statements literally, others figuratively.  And they are all happy holding onto their very different beliefs, even though all of them are inspired by the same passage in Genesis.   That is great!  

People ‘hold on’ to their ‘profound beliefs’, regardless of what others think of them or anything else – and I would not want it to be any other way.  This is called ‘faith’.  I have learned about this phenomenon.  I do not comprehend it, but I am ready to accept that some people are capable of it.

Yet, people often ‘hold on’ to ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’ on trivial or non-profound points which are demonstrably unsupportable.  I have tried, but I really don’t understand this aspect of human nature.  Personally, I have a hard time with this 100% one way, or 100% the other way mode of thought…..perhaps because I’m not ‘wired just right’…but I don’t think there is anything I’ve invested a 100%, non-conditional ‘belief’ in.

No, I’m not talking about everyday life things, like knowing I love my kids and so on….emotional investment is NOT what I am talking about.  Nor am I talking about the ‘ought to’ kind of belief, as in “I belive all humans ought to be treated as equals in the eyes of the law.”

I mean ‘factual’ stuff:  like physics, chemistry, history…that ‘stuff’…. and global warming, political implications, someone’s culpability in something, superstitions, trust in actual physical institutions …that ‘stuff’, too.  For example, when driving over a bridge, I am reasonably convinced that the probability that the bridge will collapse under me is so low as to be negligible – or I would not have driven onto it.  Yet, I do not believe that it will not collapse….there is a difference!

OK, I ‘know’ gravity is a ‘force’ – yet, if someone presented me with substantiated evidence that it wasn’t a force, but rather an aspect of, say, space, I would be sceptical, yet I’d want to know what they based their claim on.  They’d need solid evidence, but….I could be convinced by it.   Knowledge, conclusions, opinions – these are all subject to change as more information comes in.  I get that!  I understand that process, and have experienced it many times.  What I don’t get is ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.

Perhaps this is a characteristic of us Aspergers’ people:  I recall some friends cutting out a comic strip in which a teacher is handing back a math test.  She reads one of the answers out loud:  “provided both trains are travelling in straight line, with no hills or curves, provided there are no accidents that slow them down along the way, provided we neglect to account for the curvature of the Earth, provided the clocks in both stations are synchronized, and that the whole path is along same height above sea-level and so no time diallation occurs, the trains’ average speed is XXX. ”  She hands the test to a boy, and he wonders:  “How did she know this was my paper?  I forgot to put my name on it!”

For some reason, my friends thought this was hillarious and wanted to show it to me….something about the comic basing a character on me… 

It seems many people have as much problems with ‘my’ processing of information into conditional conclusions as I do with ‘faith’.    This truly shocked me….after all, does not EVERYONE state the obvious limits under which any conclusion is valid?  Why do many people percieve such qualifications as ‘waffling’?  It certainly is not so!  Would not presuming such things be an oversimplification, to the point of error? 

Yet ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ seemed more natural to many people than my ‘conditional conclusions’!

What is it that allows one person to ‘believe’ or ‘have faith’, while another cannot even commit to a math-problem answer without stating all the assumptions and limitations?  Which one is the ‘normal’ one, and which the ‘anomaly’?  Or is this like a spectrum, where there are no discrete breaks, just a continuum….with my ilk falling squarely at one extreme?

These questions have haunted me, ever since I can recall formulating their cognitive pre-cursors in nursery shool.  Even back then, I simply could not understand the motivations and expected goals behind other children’s games – and when I asked, I got blank stares or the old ‘index-finger-making-circular-motion-by-the-temple’ gestures in return.  I can understand both the process and the motivation/expected goals behind a calcualted risk, problem analysis, conditional conclusion, that sort of thing….  But, for the life of me, I cannot understand either the process nor the motivation/expected goals behind ‘belief’ and faith’ – both profound and mundane.

Is this just another aspect of my ‘faulty wiring’, one that makes me so very Aspergers?  Or, are ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ simply a label for ‘I don’t understand and am not worthy/willing to think about’?  Or is there something entirely different at play here?