How Our Brains Trick Us

If I told you that we all are living in some kind of delusion to differing degrees at any one point in time, would you believe me?

The reality is, each one of us lives in the world of our mind and its perceptions of our personal histories, situations and events; this narrative we build in our minds encompasses stories we tell ourselves about people, and our relationships with them. We make sense of the world and the objects in them through the way we think about them; the bad news is that our minds often trick us.

Yet, Mother nature has her reasons for allowing humans to evolve the way we did. If we lived completely free of delusions, we would either want to end our lives, (just because our brains could not take the painful realities we would need to face up to) or we would be unable to survive and adapt to our environment.

Either way, let me unpack this rather intriguing concept.

Our brains are designed to be efficient, so we expend the least possible energy in making decisions. This is a practical evolution: we make many decisions every single day, so if we had to deliberate over every single decision we would be left completely incapacitated and overwhelmed.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman states that we reason at two speeds: System 1 (fast) which relies on heuristics (or rules of thumb). You make decisions on the spur of the moment with broad strokes, relying on rules of thumb and generalities. This is a rather shallow approach to thinking, but it is the level at which we function most of the time, because it saves us time and energy and is adapted for the hectic pace of life many of us move at. However, the quality of the decisions we make are poor.

Such poor decision making affects our society in profound ways: a 2011 analysis of a thousand decisions made by eight Israeli magistrates revealed that their decisions were contingent on their blood sugar levels.

After a lunch break, or even a short recess, magistrates approved 65 percent of parole applications and gradually became less forgiving until they turned down practically everything. This pattern repeated itself following the next recess where their approval of parole applications went back up to 65 percent. This pattern of behavior was consistent throughout the course of the study. While these poor decisions may not affect those who make them, it has profound implications for the justice system in Israel, the prisoners petitioning for parole and the future of their families.

System 2 (slow) offers a more powerful, precise, and subtle, way of making sense of the world. It is capable of flights of mental gymnastics. It focuses, pauses, and proceeds at a slow pace. It burns up great amounts of energy, and takes a lot more time, but the quality of this sort of thinking is higher and much more precise, so if you are trying to make an important decision it is best to rely on System 2 thinking, even if it costs you more time and energy.

Even then, you almost never come close to pure logic and rationality. Herbert Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978, suggested that while we are rational creatures, our rationality is riddled with bias and limitations, and counterintuitively, this is precisely what has permitted us to survive as a species.

As the psychologist Jean-Francois Marmion states, “If our ancestors had assumed the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker every time they had to decide whether to flee a predator or an enemy, humanity would have become extinct a long time ago. It was necessary for System 1, however flawed, to exist.”

Another strong precursor for flawed reasoning is the drive to conform. The social psychologist Solomon Asch has demonstrated that the impulse to conformity leads us to deny our own perceptions. If you are the only on in the group who recognizes that two lines are of the same length, you are likely to go with the group’s perception rather than maintain your own for the fear of appearing crazy or wrong-headed.

If you think this is a purely rational decision and that your actual perception remains unmoved, but is merely kept private, consider this same experiment that Gregory Berns, of Emory University in Atlanta, repeated using MRI scans.

He found that when the brain itself refuses to accept external evidence, the neural area that comes into play is not the specialized section that deals with cognitive conflicts, it is the part that controls spatial perception.

In other words, other people’s judgements transforms our perception of lines. The error is not merely due to superficial thinking, it literally distorts our vision.

How does this happen? It happens because of the need to resolve cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. Our brain is amazing, but it is also lazy, so the easiest way to resolve the difference between our perception and that of the group’s, as well as our intrinsic need to feel a sense of personal integrity i.e. that we are not liars, is for our brain to trick itself into thinking that the two lines are the not same length as everyone else is saying when in fact they are.

In case you are still not quite convinced of the veracity of this claim, I will share with you personally how I found my own brain to be full of biases in the perception of spatial relations and lines. It started last year when I took up drawing.

I was working in a motion graphic company as a Creative Project Manager and had to get hands on with a project as we were short-staffed. I decided to take it as a challenge to improve my drawing. Subsequently, I did some research on Reddit and saw that the book ‘Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain’ was highly recommended.

The author, Betty Edwards, talks about how we are often unable to draw accurately because our true perception of space, lines and the relationships between them have been hijacked by symbolic thinking, a heuristic pattern of conceptualizing the world that is shaped by words. This system comes into place when we are children as we start to acquire the basics of our native language.

Edwards posits the question, “what prevents a person from seeing things clearly enough to draw them?”

The left hemisphere has no patience with this detailed perception and says, in effect, ‘It’s a chair, I tell you. That’s enough to know. In fact, don’t bother to look at it because I have a ready made symbol for you. Here it is: add a few details if you want, but don’t bother me with this looking business’

This system of symbols comes from childhood which becomes embedded in your memory ready to be pulled out whenever you chose to draw your childhood landscape.

All of us as children have drawn some kind of landscape like this, representative of a home. The windows, roof and rectangular structure of the home are all symbols, not actual reflections of reality.”

It is this mental heuristic that dominates our thinking because words have reduced our perceptual understanding of houses to that of “rectangular structures” and windows to that of “squares with crosses on them” and roofs to “pointy triangles” – which makes sense, from a simplistic point of view, but this sort of thinking obscures the reality and form of these objects.

One of the exercises she uses to overcome this mental bias and access the right side of the brain is to turn the reference picture upside down when you draw it. This is meant to help you access the right side of the brain more easily, as the logical left side is unable to produce symbols for the upside down picture which looks altogether foreign.

Here is the reference picture:

This is the first time I drew the tiger with the reference picture right side up. As you can see there were many corrections and it was hard for the drawing process to “flow”

This is the 2nd time around I drew the tiger, but with the reference picture upside down. Drawing the tiger upside down “tricked” my logical left brain to cease and desist from ‘fixing’ the ‘problem’ of drawing and allowed my right brain – intuitive, perceiving and in tune with spatial planes and linear relationships to take over.

This time around when I drew there was a natural flow and my drawing and line work was so much more fluid and confident. I was not starting and stopping, neither was I second guessing myself. It is almost as if something took over and did the work for me. I just had to let it happen.

I believe that most of life can be lived in this state of flow. How do we get to it? That is a topic for another day.

But for today, I think it’s enough to recognize that

1) Our brains trick us into accepting false realities because of the mental heuristics it defaults to most of the time.

2) Being aware of this mental pitfall, we can in turn ‘trick’ our brain into embracing reality, so as to work with it instead of against it.

As we ponder all the ways that our brains could be tricking us, here is a little cartoon to enjoy:

What does ‘freedom’ mean to you?

If you have read Calvin Cheng’s article titled “The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew and the Myth of Trade-offs” it is likely that you reacted in one of these two ways. Either you probably felt validated by this article as you bought into the clever suggestion that security can be conveniently redefined as freedom as the author suggested. Or like me, you shook your head and sighed deeply, disappointed by yet another prejudiced and facile article amidst the plethora of mind-numbing articles that are popping up like poisonous mushrooms in the wake of LKY’s death.

I am glad to say that there was a third response, and that response was to write an article that exposes the very elementary mistakes that Calvin Cheng’s makes in his article. Donald Low bothered to engage and write an article clarifying the important distinction between security and freedom and how that relates to Singapore’s needs today. As Low elucidates in his article, security and the delivery of high quality public goods are not contingent on the presence or the absence of a participatory democracy, but rather a strong and competent state. Neither can security or or the presence of high-quality public goods in Singapore be logically redefined as ‘freedom’ even in the Singaporean context. Following this article, Calvin Cheng rebutted by saying

“Mr. Low states that that I conflate security with freedom; I have done no such thing. I am in fact arguing that security is a precondition to real freedom.

Take a very real life example. You could tell me that I am free to go wherever I want in a crime-infested area of say New York or London, because there are no laws or physical impediments to prevent me from going. However, because my personal safety may be threatened if I do go, that ‘freedom’ is a hollow one. It’s not real freedom. Conversely, if there is law and order, I am truly free to go wherever I want.” (taken from a comment on Low’s article)

I feel very bothered by Calvin Cheng’s response because it smacks of intellectual dishonesty. First of all, unlike Low, he never once stated that security is a precondition for the exercise of freedom. Cheng merely argued that Singapore has it’s own version of ‘freedom’ because it has clean air, public safety, and so on and so forth. Sounds very much to me that he is saying high-quality public goods + security = ‘freedom’ (in Singaporean context).

Secondly, why on earth would you or I decide to walk down a crime-infested part of NYC or London? It just doesn’t make logical sense, it’s the same in Singapore, would you under normal circumstances, decide to walk alone in the dark alleyways of Geylang at 3am in the morning? (I’m not talking about the parts of Geylang where you go to for supper, but the parts where prostitutes and pimps ply their trade) I have been to London and NYC, multiple times and felt safe everywhere I went. I remember taking the underground from the JFK airport to the Time Square station at 12am at night and walking then walking across Times Square to my friend’s apartment around the corner, lugging my suitcase on rollers. I felt completely safe as the streets were brightly lit and still busy with the bustle of city life even at that late hour. I got to my friend’s apartment unmolested at 1.15 am or so, and never thought twice about it.

Thirdly, I really do not understand why Calvin Cheng compares walking around in Singapore to walking around a crime-infested area of New York or London. It’s not even a fair comparison because the crime infested parts of Singapore reside mainly in government and politics, which is why we definitely need greater political accountability. This requires greater political participation, especially in opposition parties, however, for the same reasons that most of us would avoid walking down a crime-infested street of New York city, most of us who are concerned with self-preservation would avoid getting into opposition politics.

Just think about this, almost two million USD a year goes to the Prime Minister, to govern tiny little Singapore, while the leader of the free world, Barack Obama gets less than a quarter of that, to overlook a country 13420 times larger than Singapore and deal not just with national issues, but with many issues concerning international security on a daily basis. Tell me, is the high pay that ministers in Singapore get not simply a form of legalized corruption? Did we as citizens have a significant say/power in deciding how much our ministers should get? Do we, as Singaporeans, get to decide which laws are implemented and which are abolished? It is really crazy that an entry level minister in Singapore is getting paid almost twice as much as Obama, especially in Singapore which is supposedly ‘meritocratic’ and ‘corruption free.’ People, this is not representative of a meritocracy or a country with a corruption free government, but rather an oligarchy. The biggest ‘gang’ we have in Singapore now is the PAP. But that’s slowly changing.

I live in Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills Los Angeles. A place that is notorious for criminal activity and rival gangs in L.A. Yes, I would never venture to walk around in this neighborhood at night at 3am or leave the door to my apartment open. In the same way, I would not risk doing the same in Singapore, even in my ‘safe’ Sunset Way neighborhood back in Singapore, just because…commonsense. In the same way, I do not feel that my freedom is curtailed because of the relatively high-crime occurrences in my L.A neighborhood; as long as I take the right precautions, like not walking around the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, and locking my apartment doors, for example, I feel safe. My husband’s car got broken into once and his sub-woofer got stolen, but that is because there was a malfunction in the locking system which left the trunk unlocked. (We didn’t realize this until the subwoofer got stolen, otherwise we would have locked the trunk manually) Other than that, in the two years that we have lived here, we have not had any run-ins with crime. Sure, Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills is definitely less safe than Clementi, or most parts of Singapore, or many other parts of LA like Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, but for all of my regular needs and creature comforts, it is completely adequate: I go grocery-shopping at the local supermarket and run/walk alone in a green space a couple of blocks away from where I live. The irony is that living here actually affords me more freedom and greater spending flexibility on an otherwise tight-budget.

There is an over-supply of public tennis courts here that are available for use throughout the day that I would frequent more often if I had a regular tennis partner. Most people in the ‘hood’ do not play tennis. Tennis courts are not as accessible in Singapore, unless you live in a private estate with tennis courts or are a member of a sports club. In some ways, I would say that the quality of my life in this high-crime neighborhood is higher than it could ever be in Singapore, with the current income we have. There is no way that we would be able to enjoy the luxury of a 800 square-foot 1 bedroom apartment in a gated community in Singapore for a mere rent of $900USD monthly. Also, on a relatively tight budget, both my husband and I each have our own individual cars that have already been paid in full, to be used completely at our discretion, something that could never happen in Singapore on our current income. (we would have trouble surviving in Singapore on our current income) A Singaporean friend of mine decided that he would never in his lifetime invest in buying a car in Singapore because with the same money spent on maintaining a car and paying for COE over 20 years, he could send his daughter to study in the States when she became old enough. I did the math and then realized that if ever moved back to Singapore, I would never buy car there, because it would just be a bad investment, unless of course I were rolling in money. This all comes down to what we define as freedom, to Cheng, freedom = security + high-quality public goods. To me, freedom means something else altogether.

Once again, do take the time to read Donald Low’s article and share it. In doing so, you will be taking an important step in raising the standard of political maturity and discourse in Singapore.