A Brain in Doubt Leaves It Out

As I have often argued, we like to think that we see the world as it truly is. Instead, we tend to see the world as we really are. Sadly, that reality is both literal and figurative.

As Nature has reported, if you take a look at the gif below, you’ll discover some really weird stuff about yourself and your brain.

Source: Prof. Michael Bach, University of Freiburg

Source: Prof. Michael Bach, University of Freiburg

Look at any of the yellow dots as the figure moves; it remains present and stationary. If you concentrate on all three yellow dots, they remain in place too. But if you concentrate on the central green dot instead, one or more of the yellow dots will seem to disappear and then reappear intermittently even though they are really there the whole time. Your brain simply doesn’t register their presence sometimes. This optical illusion, called motion-induced blindness, applies to nearly everyone.

The working explanatory hypothesis for why this happens is that the brain seems to have internal ideas about what the world is like and uses sensory input – messy and disorganized at best – in an effort to decide which idea to apply when. When different ideas both seem to apply and come into conflict, our perception goes askew. Indeed, we know from neurobiology that when presented with evidence that our worldviews are patently false, we tend to refuse to engage the prefrontal cortex, the very part of the brain we need most to make sense of the new. According to Nature, the researchers speculate that motion-induced blindness could happen in everyday life without us noticing it. A highway at night, with drivers staring dully at a mass of moving lights, might recreate the kind of conditions used in the experiments, causing objects – the tail lamp of the car in the next lane, perhaps – temporarily to vanish.

Jack Pettigrew, a neuroscientist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, believes that this sort of illusion results from a struggle for supremacy between the left and right halves of the brain. In general, the neuropsychological evidence shows that the right hemisphere pays broad attention to the whole world whereas the left hemisphere is adept at focusing on specific details. Accordingly, new experiences are better apprehended by the right hemisphere while the mundane and predictable is better dealt with by the left. And because the right hemisphere sees things in context, as inseparably interconnected, it recognizes the vast extent of what remains merely implicit. By contrast, because of its narrow focus, the left hemisphere isolates what it sees, and is relatively blind to things that can be conveyed only indirectly. For more, you might take a look at Iain McGilchrist’s important book, The Master and His Emissary.

The left hemisphere’s world is sharply delineated and certain, with the complexity of the world stripped away (think economic modeling or good salespeople, for example). “The right hemisphere is the cautious devil’s advocate and the left hemisphere is the confident general with a plan of action,” says Pettigrew. The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It thus has the advantage of seeming perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of being shallow and incomplete. Thus motion-induced blindness suggests that we’d best see the essentially human world as it is before we simplify and disconnect it. In essence, we need our right brains to keep our left brains honest.

That said, according to McGilchrist, the right hemisphere is undervalued and increasingly underutilized in our modern world even though its take on things is far more complex and nuanced. Instead of distinct mechanisms, the right hemisphere sees interconnected, living, embodied entities where the left is literalistic. The right is at ease with ambiguity and the idea that seeming opposites may be compatible or even complementary. “Without the right hemisphere, we are socially and emotionally insensitive, and have an impaired understanding of beauty, art and religion. Effectively autistic, we have no sense of the broader context of experience. Meanwhile, without the left hemisphere, we struggle to bring detail into focus.”

Pettigrew found that applying a pulse of magnetism to the brain to disrupt its function affects the occurrence of motion-induced blindness. When the pulse is applied to the right hemisphere (leaving the left dominant) the dots disappear; zapping the left brings them back. Thus it appears that the left hemisphere suppresses sensory information that conflicts with its idea of what the world should be like while the right sees the world more as it really is. Accordingly, some people with paralysis caused by injuries to their brain’s right hemisphere will deny that they are at all disabled.

Sadly, we have no way (at least so far) to zap one side of our brains to let the other side do some needed analysis. We’d like to think that knowing about our general problems in this area might help us to do better, at least with respect to thinking errors. However, recent evidence suggests that being smarter, more aware or more educated doesn’t seem to help us deal with our cognitive difficulties more effectively. Indeed, that may actually make things worse. For example, a new study suggests that, in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to thinking errors, even basic ones. Moreover, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.”

The bottom line here is that the way we’re built makes it really hard for us to make good decisions and sometimes (quite literally) to see things accurately. To have even a fighting chance to do so, we need actively to consider and test opposing viewpoints. We don’t like to think that we’re wrong, but we are – a lot, about yellow dots and broad concepts alike. As Jeff Bezos of Amazon insightfully expresses it, people who are right a lot of the time are people who change their minds a lot.

Good science, good practice and good process all demand that we remain open to new and better evidence and to change our minds when and as events warrant. But doing so is much easier said than done, of course. Information may be cheap, but meaning is expensive and elusive. If we are going to make better decisions in the markets and elsewhere, we need a much broader perspective and we need to be constantly refining and updating our viewpoints. More than that, we need really talented people actively empowered to try to discover where we are going and where we have already gone wrong…even when and as our conflicted brains wants to leave such things out of our consideration.

None of us likes to be challenged and corrected. Few of us are willing to accept such an approach even in theory. Meanwhile, most people doing the challenging don’t do it in the right spirit and for the right reasons. But invest in our processes we must if we are to succeed. Our irrationalities will necessarily overwhelm us unless we do everything we can personally so as consistently to check our work and have it challenged by smart and talented people we encourage to “tear it apart.” That’s because we don’t see things as they really are and are consistently and dangerously much less rational than we assume.

12 thoughts on “A Brain in Doubt Leaves It Out

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  6. There is something else about the brain: We are hardwired to follow the crowd. We evolved this in ancient times: When a crowd we were in suddenly started to move as one rapidly in one direction, it made evolutionary sense to follow them without asking questions. If one stood there looking around, one could be eaten by a predator. This programming carries over to present day traders…this is why when the market starts to crash, it gains momentum, and why bubbles exist. I trade against the crowd.

    • I’m not generally comfortable with the “just-so” stories of evolutionary psychology, but the data is clear that we are herding creatures and that we often suffer for it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  10. “… this sort of illusion results from a struggle for supremacy between the left and right halves of the brain …” well, studies show, that e.g. Chinese have a different way of engaging their brain hemispheres, largely due to the fact that they don’t use a “digital” alphabet but pictures/icons to “write”. I strongly believe, that a lot of that “neural blindness” is actually introduced e.g. by the school system where the teacher must insist on a “right” answer, then multiple choice tests that enforce this nonsense – until, later in life, the brain has learned to suppress any aspect that might not result in such a hat with a square papier-machee … It is all a matter of how studying patterns is incentivized!

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