By Vexen Crabtree 2018
We have an internal narrative in our heads, which we subconsciously create to constantly describe and explain our own actions, and our own perception of the world. But there are many occasions where the stories that it creates are mistaken, and sometimes even completely fabricated1,2. This is a subconscious self-deceit, and to guard against it is difficult. Neurologists and psychologists have amassed a great number of example cases. For example, after temporary surgery direct electrical stimulation of the brain caused one patient (George) to turn his head sharply whenever the trigger was set. Even though George didn't know the true cause, he explains to the doctor that he is "looking for my slipper" and "I heard a noise" and then "I'm restless"3. His brain creates a false reality for him. In another experiment, a hypnotized patient removes her shoes when given a secret clue. "Sarah," asks the hypnotist, "why did you take off your shoes?" "Well... my feet are hot and tired," Sarah replies. "It's been a long day"3. It's not just ordinary experiences that can be convincingly mis-interpreted by our brains. Hallucinations, out of body-experiences, the feelings of being watched and of a spirit standing nearby, can all be generated electrochemically in artificial experiments on the brain1. These phenomena are interpreted by some people as anomalous and strange, but other people are easily misled by biochemical dysfunction into sternly held supernatural beliefs. The conditions for such spontaneously and real-seeming events can occur at any time; and an untrained mind can easily be led astray.
When strange things happen, we try very hard to explain them as part of a sensible internal narrative. So, when scientists stimulate neurones in our brain that cause a sensation of a presence, our explanations include all kinds of fantastical stories.
“Illusions and delusions can be created just by stimulating parts of the brain with electrical current. [...] Researchers have caused hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, the feeling of a presence in the room, the déja vu experience, and mystical experiences, among others, just by sending electrical currents to various parts of the brain.[...]
These studies are interesting in themselves but even stranger than these experiences are the stories people make up to explain them. They often concoct elaborate confabulations to make sense of their situations. Some researchers think that confabulation - mixing actual events with fictions or constructing wholly fabricated stories on the fly without intending to deceive - may be something we all do.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011)1
Here are some examples of how we concoct fantastical stories to explain the world around us, completely unaware that our own brain is tricking us:
“George has electrodes temporarily implanted in the brain region that controls his head movements. When neurosurgeon José Delgado (1973) stimulates the electrode by remote control, George always turns his head. Unaware of the remote stimulation, he offers a reasonable explanation for it: "I'm looking for my slipper." "I heard a noise." "I'm restless." "I was looking under the bed."”
“Sarah is hypnotized and told to take off her shoes when a book drops on the floor. Fifteen minutes later a book drops, and Sarah quietly slips out of her loafers. "Sarah," asks the hypnotist, "why did you take off your shoes?" "Well... my feet are hot and tired," Sarah replies. "It's been a long day."”
Those who have these experiences and then try to explain them are not lying. They are not consciously inventing the story that they tell; all of us, for all of our experiences, rely upon a mechanism of internal dialogue that
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Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
(1999) Social Psychology. Paperback book. 6th ('international') edition. Originally published 1983. Current version published by McGraw Hill.