Making shit up

I find that I have a lot of opinions. I form them instantaneously, without much thought a lot of the time, but recently I have started to understand why and how this happens. It has something to do with what this psychologist, Michael S. Gazzaniga, has discovered in his research on the ‘split brain’.

Here is a New York Times piece that gives some background.

This is the relevant part:

In one study, for instance, he and Joseph LeDoux, then a graduate student, showed a patient two pictures: The man’s left hemisphere saw a chicken claw; his right saw a snow scene. Afterward, the man chose the most appropriate matches from an array of pictures visible to both hemispheres. He chose a chicken to go with the claw, and a shovel to go with the snow. So far, so good.

But then Dr. Gazzaniga asked him why he chose those items — and struck gold. The man had a ready answer for one choice: The chicken goes with the claw. His left hemisphere had seen the claw, after all. Yet it had not seen the picture of the snow, only the shovel. Looking down at the picture of the shovel, the man said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

The left hemisphere was just concocting an explanation, Dr. Gazzaniga said. In studies in the 1980s and ’90s, he and others showed that the pattern was consistent: The left hemisphere takes what information it has and delivers a coherent tale to conscious awareness. It happens continually in daily life, and most everyone has caught himself or herself in the act — overhearing a fragment of gossip, for instance, and filling in the blanks with assumptions.

The brain’s cacophony of competing voices feels coherent because some module or network somewhere in the left hemisphere is providing a running narration. “It only took me 25 years to ask the right question to figure it out,” Dr. Gazzaniga said.


What it means is that we create narratives to understand the world, and we are at the mercy of our own perception, and often we are very flawed in how we do this. Philosophers have known about this for a long time. It’s the allegory of the cave in a way. We see something, and we make a story that explains it, but it doesn’t mean we know what we are talking about. In a sense, we are always just guessing.

We evolved to jump into stories. We have a biological need to tie up loose ends. I am unclear of where I picked it up this idea (it may have been in this book, or this one), but the basic premise is that we feel ambiguity as unpleasant. Think of how you feel when you don’t know the answer to a question. Think of how you feel when there are a lot of details thrown at you all at once. Also consider that every feeling you have is part of a feedback loop in your body. It’s in some way analogous to feeling pain when damage is done to one of your nerve cells. At any rate, when you are faced with ambiguity, you get confused, and when you get confused, you have to concentrate, and as soon as a pattern emerges, or a story pops into your head, that feeling goes away, and you return to rest.

In an evolutionary framework, thinking is costly. Concentrating takes your attention away from potential threats, like bears that could eat you. It also takes up an enormous amount of calories, and calories are all that mattered for ‘survival of the fittest’ for a large portion of our natural history, etc… Even today, it costs us time and money to try an get to the bottom of something ambiguous. We have sayings like “going down the rabbit hole” to describe someone (often me) who tries to find all of the possible pieces of a puzzle before guessing what the picture might be. So this ‘split-brain’ phenomenon gave us this clue about how we operate, in our daily life, and I think it is an evolutionary response to kick our brains out of an expensive research project. It’s like the boss who tells you to summarize everything into 5 words or less.


Now we have an increasingly complex world to navigate. If we guess that the puzzle is a windmill, when it is really an ancient Greek warship, because we only assembled enough pieces to see part of a sail, this feature of our nature has backfired! Instead of saving us from a bear, it has embarrassed us in some sort of puzzle guessing game…And yet, in some convoluted way, this is how we ended up with a financial crisis recently. Go watch The Big Short. People bought into a simple story: real estate prices never fall. Somebody’s boss said 5 words or less. Most peoples’ bosses. Most people in general. Everyone wanted to believe that, so that their brains could go back to rest. And that is just one example, we could go on.


So now I know. I have all of these opinions. Only some of them have substance, the ones I can back up. The rest of them are made to shut down my brain, so it can rest. But I know this other thing, too. If I am aware that my brain is doing this, I know (I can guess) how much weight to place on my own abilities of perception. I know not to trust the first thing that pops up into my head. I know that I might not know anything we usually call a fact. It’s humbling.

I also know that there is no shortage of people out there who believe their own stories. There are people who see a shadow on a cave wall, and think it is a bear, and there are others that think the same shadow is cast by a mouse. Who do we let decide what we do about it? The problem has no solution, really. It all depends on what is actually casting the shadow, and nobody knows for sure. Even then…what do you do? Sometimes if you attack a bear, it will change it’s mind about leaving you alone. Or vice versa. It gets complicated. It gets ambiguous. You have to concentrate, and you are built to avoid concentration.

I know that there are people who see the world in black and white, and these people are the only people in the world you can be certain are wrong. There is an old Haitian proverb: “If you’re not confused, you are wrong.”

And in terms of reality, I want to give the last word to Feynman.





4 thoughts on “Making shit up

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