Great science article in the NYT today, right up DJ’s alley, called “Slights of Mind,” a report on the Magic of Consciousness symposium in Las Vegas.
It covered several topics of great interest in understanding human experience: “...the cognitive principles underlying the magic… the narrowness of perception: how very little of the sensory clamor makes its way into awareness… inattentional blindness… the role words play inside the brain” etc. The take-away line for me was, “With a grab bag of devices accumulated over the eons, the brain pulls off the ultimate conjuring act: the subjective sense of I.”
Free will wasn’t mentioned in the article, but the implications to me seemed obvious. I always entertain hope when I read such a piece in so prominent a venue, that people who read it, at least some of them, will see those same implications and start questioning previously held assumptions about themselves. Having just read Tavris and Aronson’s book, “Mistakes Were Made,” that hope seems incredibly slim, especially for people who have enjoyed some acclaim for their “self-initiated” accomplishments.
A great example of this kind of reality avoidance is Michael Gazzaniga, president of the consciousness association, about whom there were several paragraphs in the article. I was always struck by examples of this avoidance in his book, “The Mind’s Past.” Early in the book he talked about “...the interpreter. This one device creates the illusion that we are in charge of our actions.” (1998, p. xiii) Then at the end of his book he glorifies the very illusion he has exposed, giving it credit for “...the wonderful sensation that our self is in charge of our destiny.” (p. 175) Cherish those illusions, Michael, no mistakes involved.
There is hope, however, as the last chapter of “Mistakes Were Made” points out: “Dweck’s research is heartening because it suggests that at all ages, people can learn to see mistakes not as terrible personal failings to be denied or justified, but as inevitable aspects of life that help us grow, and grow up.”(p. 235) It confirms my belief that the truth does set you free, and as the book points out, that there are many benefits in accepting reality as awareness of it becomes available. Illusions can be fun, but there can be even greater satisfaction, and awe, in seeing how the trick was done.
The question is, how much confirmation bias and self-justification are involved in the things I just wrote? Aarrrgh!