Neurological Illusions

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While optical illusions are fun and familiar, we are discovering other illusions within our own minds that have the power to amaze and upset some of our dearest beliefs about ourselves.

Optical Illusions

What science museum would be complete without a few amusing optical illusions? Not only are such illustrations amusing, but they also illustrate technical details of human visual perception. More philosophically-oriented patrons may come to reflect on how easy it can be to disconnect what we think we see from what is actually present in the world.

Although some optical illusions are utterly convincing until the trick is revealed, we usually don’t have too much trouble accepting that our eyes are wrong. Psychology and neuroscience are revealing new kinds of illusions, not of perception, but deeper inside the mind. These illusions plague our memories, our judgement, and even our own beliefs about what a mind is and how it functions.

Illusion of Self-Consistency

“I’ll never relapse” is one of the most common phrases uttered by recovering addicts. Certainly when they’re in a meeting or in my office, people in recovery are strong in their resolve to stop using drugs or alcohol. The illusion is that this strong, resolute state is a permanent property of their self and will stay with them after they leave, when they go back to their homes, or when they are confronted by the triggers that were associated with their use previously. The illusion of consistency makes most of the time-tested techniques of recovery seem beside the point.

Illusions of self-consistency aren’t just apropos of recovering addicts. I have yet to meet the person who never says “I am this” or “I am not that.” The truth is that while people have tendencies, they aren’t fixed, and they depend on lots of factors outside what we normally think of as “the self.”

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I seem to have a tough time encouraging my clients to take better care of themselves in basic ways. It could be that the problem is one of self-consistency. They fail to appreciate that the “self” that they have when exhausted, dehydrated, or malnourished is a pale shadow of the “self” they would manifest given proper rest and nutrition.

Illusion of Unity of Mind

As far as I know, every language has a simple and direct way of talking about identity and the self. In English, we have two very small words, “I” and “me”, to capture the collection of body, plus thoughts, plus feelings, plus memories that make up a person. It is not only convenient, but comforting, to consider ourselves and others as unified selves. But research, and even common experience, poke at the holes of the illusion of unity of mind.

Sometimes a patient suffering with severe epilepsy will undergo a corpus callosotomy, where the two hemispheres of the brain are separated to operate in relative isolation, despite being housed in a single body. Patients with this condition are usually able to function well in social situations and, despite the fact that the two halves of their brain have been largely disconnected, they maintain the illusion of a unified self, both to themselves and others. Cleverly designed experiments, however, demonstrate that the two hemispheres are operating independently, and sometimes even in contradictory ways, yet the illusion of unity of mind remains.

No need to cut your brain in half to begin to see through the illusion that our minds are unified structures. In everyday life we find ourselves pulled simultaneously in multiple directions. Perhaps you’re watching an engrossing movie, but you really need to visit the bathroom. Or imagine a situation where some part of you knows you should be finishing an important project, but something else in you can’t bear to sit in front of the computer another second. Poet Walt Whitman confronted his fragmented mind poetically: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Is Choice an Illusion?

Choice is an everyday experience. Should you have coffee or tea? Take the bus or walk? Accept a blind date or turn it down? Big or small, we all know what it feels like to decide. First we become aware of a choice, then we mull over the options, then — aha! — we have a decision…or do we? Neuroscientists studying choice have found that functional MRI machines can detect a choice a full seven seconds before the person in the scanner reports making the choice. If our experience of making a decision doesn’t match what science tells us, then what exactly is going on? This startling discontinuity raises issues as fundamental as the existence of free will itself.

No doubt, neuroscientists and other psychology researchers will discover more bizarre and counter-intuitive illusions living deep in our brains. Just as with most optical illusions, knowing the trick doesn’t dispel the illusion, even as we know what we’re seeing or thinking isn’t objectively true. Yet my hope is that by understanding our illusions, visual and cognitive alike, we will develop a humility that allows us to question even our perceptions and thoughts. If seeing isn’t believing, perhaps believing isn’t quite what we think, either.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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