How Our Minds Curate Our Experience of the World

My recent post regarding the fact that words do not possess meaning in any sense is intended to set the methodological stage, along with this post, for a future post regarding how people approach authoritative texts like the Bible or the Constitution. An important principle that’s going to inform a lot of this particular post is something called dual-process cognition (an excerpt from a book about this is here). This is the observation that our reasoning seems to occupy a spectrum that runs from fast, automatic, and subconscious reasoning (based on evolution and our mind’s conditioning) all the way to slow, reflective, and intentional reasoning (based on our goals, values, and logic). These types of reasoning can and frequently do conflict with each other (a fascinating example is here).

In this post, I’d like to highlight how our experience of the world around us and our place in it is constructed entirely by our subconscious minds. The cognitive architecture responsible for constructing this experience runs the gamut from innate and evolutionarily-determined predispositions down to default settings established through experience and habit. In short, nature and nurture combine to help us experience the world in similar and roughly accurate ways. The goal is to maximize our chances of survival and of social success (we have evolved not just to survive ourselves, but to help our social groups survive and to improve our standing within them). Because our experiences are all different, no two people experience the world in exactly the same way.

Here’s a pretty compelling example of an interpretive lens pretty much all of us share. Look at the image below (taken from the first episode of Brain Games). It shows two gray discs before a horizon line, with one darker than the other. The trick here is that the gray of each disc is the exact same shade of gray. You can demonstrate this by placing your finger over the spot where the discs join to cover up the highlight at the top of the bottom disc and the shadow at the bottom of the top disc. If you remove your finger, they go back to looking like different shades of gray. If you slide your finger over so only half of the joint is covered, focusing on your finger will render the grays identical, while shifting your focus to the corner where the two discs meet will make them appear different shades again.

What’s going on here? Your mind is subconsciously interpreting the world around you at all times, and it has a number of default settings regarding how to tell you to interpret things. Because this image highlights the top of the bottom disc, and puts a shadow at the bottom of the top disc, it mimics the features of a three-dimensional object in space. In light of that, our mind expects the surface in the light to be a lighter color than the surface in the shadow. They’re exactly the same, though, so our mind actually makes us perceive the surface in the light as a darker gray, and the surface in the shadow as a lighter gray. Our mind detects something off, but instead of letting us perceive it as “off,” it simply alters our perception so it does not seem off. This all happens automatically and subconsciously, because our minds want our experience of the world to be consistent with its expectations, and where there are tiny discrepancies, our minds are happy to blur the lines for us.

The mind’s curation of our experience of the world around us and our place in it extends to all our senses. I highly recommend the Brain Games episode from which I borrowed the image above. It goes through a number of different experiments that show how our minds construct our experience of the world. One fascinating thing it does not discuss (but briefly approximates with the fake hand trick) is phantom pains. One particular kind of phantom pain illustrates how our minds construct our experience, but also how we can intentionally fool our minds to change that experience. A phantom pain is when the mind decides for whatever reason that it is receiving pain signals from a limb that has been lost or was never there. Some people experience the sensation of an absent hand being clenched in an excruciatingly tight fist that they cannot unclench. A neuroscientist named V. S. Ramachandran came up with an ingenious solution to this particular kind of pain (he described it here, and much more recently here, but it was also dramatically depicted in an episode of House). He put together a box with two holes and a mirror. The subject would put their existing arm in one hole and then whatever they could of their other arm in the other hole. The reflection on the mirror inside the box made it look like both hands were there. The subjects would clench their existing fist, look at the reflection (which their mind now perceived to be their clenched phantom fist), and then release their fist with their existing hand. Their mind would see the reflected fist unclench and would unclench the phantom fist, relieving the excruciating pain.

Of particular interest to me is how texts work, though, and that episode of Brain Games doesn’t go into much depth with reading. There’s another episode that offers a good illustration of one of the ways our minds prejudice our reading:

One of the main reasons this kind of thing fools us, in addition to what is explained in the clip, is because reading is a process of stitching together what we see in the text and what we anticipate will come next. Because it takes about 1/10 of a second for our minds to process input, and because that’s more than enough time for something to threaten our existence, our minds have evolved to predict what is coming, based on a combination of incoming data and its past experiences, and to project an experience to fill in that gap. Just like with the gray disc illusion, our mind can compel us to see or not to see something if it is confident enough in what we should and shouldn’t be reading. (This is why typos in our writing are so much easier for other people to see.)

There is an added dynamic with authoritative texts, and that’s our identity politics. We all perceive ourselves to be members of different kinds and degrees of social groups, and those identities are phenomenally important to our minds. It’s one of the reasons some people who don’t feel like they “belong” to any or a specific group can suffer from severe depression. As a result, our social identities can exercise a great deal of influence over how our minds compel us to interpret authoritative texts. My next post will discuss identity politics in more detail.


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