The biggest illusion is not ‘Matrix’, a virtual world of experiences that only happen inside your mind. No, the biggest illusion is your own mind, specifically your consciousness and something called free will. You have lived this illusion your whole life, even now, as you read these lines.
After discovering it, there’s no going back. You take the red pill by knowing how science has been uncovering this illusion for decades, but the ‘Matrix’ do not seems to want you to discover the truth. And it’s accessible to anyone, really.
Click on the red pill to continue reading.
We don’t remember everything we see. What not everyone realizes is that we don’t see everything we think we do. The most accessible evidence of this is our eye’s blind spot, an area of our retina through which the optic nerve goes through, and is therefore without any photoreceptors. This small spot doesn’t capture any image.
If you have never noticed your eye’s blind spot, close your right eye and fix with the left one the red circle below. Now, get slowly near the computer screen, always looking at the red circle.
When you are around a palm from the screen, the blue star will vanish — its image has just been over the blind spot. If you keep getting closer, or away, from the screen, the star comes up again. It’s back on your sensitive retina.
The same happens with the red circle, if you try closing your left eye and look at the blue star.
The important thing to notice here is that when either the circle or the star vanish, you don’t see a dark spot in its place. Instead, the area is replaced by the whiteness around it. Curious? Try the same experience now with the negative image below and see if the star or circle are replaced by whiteness again:
They are in fact replaced by the color around them, and by the same reason that you don’t usually notice your blind spot: your brain is continually replacing it with information from around and your other eye to make it inconspicuous to you.
Fact is, you may think you see everything in your field of view, but that’s not true even in your retina.
Neither is it true for your brain and visual memory. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine estimated that the human retina can transmit visual input at about the same rate as an Ethernet connection, at 10Mb/s. That’s around 36Gb per hour, approximately 576Gb a day, and over 200 Terabytes a year. An old man, eighty years old, would have almost 17 PETAbytes sent over by his retina. This is more than all of Google’s 450.000 server’s can store. Is this all inside a small area of that old man’s brain?
Of course not, we don’t remember everything we see. But scientific experiments demonstrate that we are not even aware of everything that we see at the moment, blind spot aside. “Change blindness” experiments show that we can’t notice extremely big changes in images right in front of us. Believe it or… check this amazing color changing card trick.
These are not just amusing tricks involving our lack of attention. These class of experiments fundamentally question our common sense about the consciousness and perception as a continuous and rich stream. In fact, our brain is constantly filtering the huge overload of information that we capture from our senses, mainly from our eyes, and generates the illusion of a continuous stream of consciousness of everything that happens around us. Our perception is actually narrow and fragmented. And that’s not all.
HUG THE BUNNY
Not only don’t we see everything we think we do, but even the things we think we did see, our memories, are something different from what we commonly assume. Enters the false memory syndrome.
In another scientific experiment, American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus showed several subjects an innocent selection of Disneyworld ads, including some images of Bugs Bunny and some children in the theme park. Shortly afterwards, she suggestively asked them if they remembered, when they went to Disney, having met Bugs Bunny and “hugging his furry body, stroking his velvety ears“?
Up to a third of the subjects told they remembered that. But they never hugged Bugs Bunny on Disney, because you see, Bugs is a Warner character that has never been to Disneyworld — Warner and Disney are rivals, and that’s the reason you have never seen them in the same cartoon. The ad showing Bugs at Disney was fake, and what Loftus did was to implant a false memory.
Remember “Total Recall“? It’s not necessary to use fancy Rekal Inc. gadgetry to implant false memories, you only need the right suggestions. This is especially true with hypnosis and suggestionable people, but false memories show up in some degree for everyone. Far from being a big archive, our memory is malleable and easily changeable.
Time for a fable.
Once upon a time, scientists showed many, many pairs of female faces’ photographs to many volunteers for just a couple of seconds. The researchers then asked them to choose which one they thought was more attractive, and then asked the volunteers to explain their choice.
But what the volunteers didn’t know was that the scientists were very tricky, and sometimes they switched the photos after a decision had been made. And followed on to ask why they had chosen the photo they didn’t actually choose.
Surprisingly, not only were a large number of the volunteers oblivious to the switch when ultimately allowed to take a longer look at their choice, they were actually able to give detailed explanations for why they preferred the face that, indeed, they had actually rejected.
It would be like asking for an apple and then explaining exactly why you wanted the banana you got instead. And be very good at it, naturally.
This is not a fairy story, of course. It’s one more psychological experience, this one conducted a couple of years ago by researchers from Lund University, Sweden. And its results once again question our common sense about our decisions and perception. But not as much as our final experiment.
In what my be one of the strangest experiments of all time, in mid-1980s researcher Benjamin Libet asked some people to do simple things, like moving a wrist, whenever they felt willing to. Nothing special, he also wired them with a series of sensors for brain activity and the actual movement of the wrist.
Trying to know more about how we take a decision, he then asked the subjects to look at a point circling around quickly, like a clock. When they felt the will to move the wrist or press a button, they should note where the point was in the clock. Thus, Libet would be able to estimate the moment when the decision was felt.
As expected, the decision preceded the action by around 200 milliseconds. It takes some time for the decision in our brain to reach our muscles. But the real intriguing result was associated with the cerebral activity and something called “readiness potential“.
For some decades, it was already known that voluntary action like moving a finger or wrist is preceded by a characteristic brain wave pattern, termed readiness potential. Before a voluntary movement, your brain produces this pattern.
What Libet found was that the readiness potential precedes the conscious will reported by up to 350 milliseconds. That is, almost half a second before you feel you have decided to move your wrist, your brain has been already taking steps in that direction, producing a pattern that already indicated you would do that.
Which is, in this case your free-will, the feeling of deciding at that exact moment to move your wrist, was only an illusion. It takes more time for this unconscious activity to reach your consciousness as “your” decision, than it takes for the will to be actually executed by your muscles.
The interpretation and consequences of this tantalizing experiment, done over two decades ago, have not been fully explored even by science.
THE RED PILL
As psychologist Susan Blackmore clarifies in one of her works, “An illusion is not something that does not exist, like a phantom or phlogiston. Rather, it is something that it is not what it appears to be, like a visual illusion or a mirage. When I say that consciousness is an illusion I do not mean that consciousness does not exist. I mean that consciousness is not what it appears to be.”
Let’s assume then that free will is an illusion, that your decisions are not made by a single continuous self-conscious mind, but are in fact the result of many unconscious brain activities that are only retrospectively viewed and felt as being yours, as being you.
We have already seen how good we are in justifying decisions that were not ours, in the photo switch experiment. We have also seen how memories that don’t belong to us can be implanted on our brains, like Bugs Bunny on Disney.
We also checked how we don’t see everything we think we see, with our change blindness, and how on the other hand our brain fill up our eye’s actual blind spot.
This is the concrete desert of reality: our perception even of ourselves is for the most part an illusion. It certainly doesn’t mean we don’t exist, or even that we don’t have consciousness or free-will. We surely do. But science surely shows that they are not what they appear to be.
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