headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

January 2024

The Brain is Amazing

I've learned a lot in my life. My brain has filled itself with knowledge. And some of that knowledge can be trusted--somewhat trusted.

The brain is an amazing organ. It runs our body on so many levels, from the basic mechanical operations to the ethereal thoughts and dreams. We should appreciate it. We should also take to heart these words of Emo Philips:

"I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I realized, whoa, 'look what's telling me that'."

Our brains also lie to us. Take this picture, for example:
licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, found on https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-men-in-a-tunnel-illusion-Based-on-the-image-included-by-Ernst-Gombrich-in-Art-and_fig10_277989285 originally from Pepperell, Robert. (2015). Artworks as dichotomous objects: Implications for the scientific study of aesthetic experience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 9. 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00295
As printed on the page or displayed on the screen, is the figure on the right larger than the figure on the left?

Even when you know they're the same size, your brain keeps telling you otherwise. And there are many other ways your brain misleads you, too.

One of my favorites is the tendency to find patterns in random data. This is known as apophenia. It can be a lot of fun, such as seeing faces in ordinary objects such as electrical outlets. It can lead to bad bets, such as putting a lot of money on the next roll of a pair of dice based on the past few rolls.

Another favorite is confirmation bias, the tendency to notice and interpret information that confirms our preconceptions. As a friend once said to me, "once you start thinking about confirmation bias, you see it everywhere!"

There are whole catalogs of cognitive biases. There are so many ways our brains jump to conclusions. Our brains:

Many of those conclusions are dubious, and some are habitually so.

It's inevitable that some of my beliefs and choices will conflict with others chosen in different circumstances. The discomfort of believing contradictory things is called cognitive dissonance. Most of the time people will alter their beliefs in some way to alleviate this discomfort. That's your brain trying to create a cohesive story out of the situation.

This is not the only possible response to cognitive dissonance, however, even if your brain tells you that it is. Like in the optical illusion, above, you can choose not to believe everything your brain believes.

I've developed habits of mind to be more sensitive to noticing these dissonances and considering with the more rational part of my mind. I question myself and explore more deeply. What are the basis and limits of these conflicting beliefs?

Sometimes I realize that they belong to different contexts, and don't directly conflict. This may still leave some residual dissonance about why I treat these contexts differently.

Sometimes I don't have the knowledge or skill to reconcile the warring beliefs rationally. Yet. When that happens, I often choose a strategy I call Holding the Question. I don't have to resort to ego defense to resolve the dissonance immediately. I can live with it, knowing that I can revisit the question later. My ego is satisfied with that--the story that someday I'll work this out, and that I'm still OK for now.

And, yes, I'm sure that there are plenty of times my brain creates a quick and plausible story that makes the dissonance go away before I know it. How can I notice more often? That's a question I'm still holding.

And I will always hold that question. I have no expectation of eradicating the sloppy conclusions of my inference brain. After all, it's that brain that evolved to keep us safe in emergency situations.

/signed/ George

P.S. If this sort of neuroscience interests you, here are some books that I've enjoyed that have contributed to my thoughts:

Fine print: As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission if you use these links to purchase these books.

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