The trees in the forest

I like to remind myself that there is a lot we still don’t know about the mind. But I was thinking: given what we do know, what single lesson really sticks out?

I think I have an answer, now. I’m still working on how best to phrase this, but here’s my latest: our personal experience of reality is a useful illusion.

It’s useful because what we experience usually relates to the physical world (i.e., reality). It’s an illusion because it isn’t the same thing as the physical world. Though the word illusion is sort of overstating it.

Our experience is an interpretation by the brain, and we only receive the final interpretation. It’s like the saying about missing the forest for the trees, but in reverse. Normally, we only see the forest; the trees, the building blocks, are hidden.

If you have normal color vision, you experience a bouncing red circle effortlessly. It just is a bouncing red circle. But that’s the forest, the final interpretation of a complex and dynamic processing system. How you arrived here is more complicated.

Consider the following:

  • How do you know where the circle begins and ends?
  • How do you know the color red belongs to the circle instead of just being nearby?
  • How do you know the circle at the top of its bounce is the same circle at the bottom?

As an experiencer who only ever gets the final product, it seems obvious. But if it was truly obvious then people who are blind as infants would instantly be able to see if their vision is restorable as adults. Fact is they cannot. They “see” visual information, but their brain does not know how to make sense of it. It takes time to learn to see, for the brain to figure out how the building blocks should go together.

You experience a seamless red circle at the top, but your brain processes pieces separately at certain early stages. It integrates the parts into one experience which gives you the impression of a bouncing red circle.

We take for granted that the pieces will be stitched together and make sense, until that process breaks anyway. There are physical systems in your brain that actually do all that work. It can break; usually in cases of brain damage.

  • Prosopagnosia: face blindness. People with this disorder are totally “normal,” except that they cannot recognize faces. Sometimes they even cannot recognize their own face. People with this disorder often have something abnormal or damaged in their fusiform gyrus in the brain.
  • Akinetopsia: motion blindness. People with this disorder cannot perceive motion. For some, it’s like watching a slideshow; others simply cannot see something if it moves. Akinetopsia usually is from damage to the occipital lobe, roughly the brain region at the back/bottom of your head, where a lot of visual processing occurs. It is rare.

So what’s this all mean? Just because we experience something doesn’t make it a universal truth, and so a reasonable amount of humility is a good thing. For example, there is nothing about the wavelengths of light that make them red or green; that’s just the interpretation some brains make. Some don’t.

For psychological science, I think it is even more important. So many things appear “obvious,” and we often rely on common language to express our ideas. But maybe the most accurate way to describe a person doesn’t need to “make sense;” I don’t think magnetism “makes sense” but it’s real, regardless.

My hope for the future of psychology is that we find ways to connect our personal experiences of reality to the obscure physical truths that create it. I don’t expect this to happen soon. But it would be neat.