Thursday, November 04, 2010

Invisible Gorillas

I'm listening to an audio book in the car called, The Invisible Gorilla.  It's slow going getting through a book just doing errands but I'm down to the last disc finally.  It's a very scary book about how poorly our brains work.  The title refers to an experiment where research subjects watched a video of a basketball game with instructions to count the number of times the players passed the ball.  In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla suit walked in front of the camera.  After the video was over, the subjects were asked if they saw anything unusual during the video - 75% of them said no.  Scary.  When we're focused on one thing, we usually tune out everything else.

The whole book is about how our brains are wired to draw conclusions when there's no reason to do so and to ignore facts that don't fit with our beliefs.  It explains a lot about why people will devotedly believe things that simply aren't true.  Another example from the book is a question usually asked in beginning psychology classes- what is the connection between increased numbers of people drowning and increased numbers of people eating ice cream?  These two things increase at the exact same time every year.  Students usually try to figure out which one caused the other although it's fairly apparent that it's unlikely either could have caused the other.  It is true that drownings and ice cream eating do increase at exactly the same time every year - in the summer when many people are both swimming and eating ice cream.  If you were a conspiracy-type person, I guess you could decide that the government has put something in ice cream that causes people to sink. 

The book has a lot more examples of how people are misled by the belief that if an event happens after another event, the first event must have caused the second event.  Of course, it's extremely unlikely that just because something happens after something else happens, that the first caused the second - there are too many other possible causes.  But we love stories - our brains are wired to store stories rather than facts and stories usually run along the lines of "this happened and then that happened" - implying cause.  But there's actually no way to know except by doing a carefully crafted research study.

This all reminds me of what Don Miguel Ruiz says in The Four Agreements -  It's not a good idea to believe what you or anyone else thinks because neither of you has the truth - all you have is your own perception.  Much of the trouble in the world, he says, is caused by believing what you think and believing that everyone else is wrong.  It's a miracle that human beings are still alive on the earth considering how many incredibly stupid mistakes we make!

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