Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Illusions: A Wider Perspective

Originally posted on January 7, 2011

Two topics (among many others) on my mind seem to be overlapping as I discover more books reflecting more research on the topic: illusion and critical thinking. It turns out Freud just opened the door a crack—the unconscious is far more vast and complicated than he ever knew!

(Freud once likened himself to Columbus and the comparison was apt. There was a heroic ambition and achievement and a world-changing impact—that’s true. But (1)Columbus never realized that he had actually discovered a new set of continents and islands—he thought his discoveries were islands off of the East Asian coast near China or Japan! (2) He actually touched the continental mainland only briefly—Venezuela, I think it was—and again didn’t recognize it. And (3) his management of his organization was dismal, unleashing untold suffering on the natives. So, too, I think there were a number of limitations and unintended consequences to Freud’s discoveries. Still and all, there were also some valid insights.)

I’m looking at a book titled “On Second Thought: Outsmarting your mind’s hard-wired habits,” by Wray Herbert (2010: New York: Crown Publishers). It’s yet another in a series of books that reflect a great deal of psychological research that reveals the complexity of mental tendencies that sometimes interfere with accurate reality-testing. Unless we’re hyper-alert to the way illusions happen and quite disciplined in noting our own mental tendencies, we fall prey to these psychosocial equivalents to scams and spam and computer viruses that worm their way in under our mental radar. There are apparently thousands of them! I am impressed every time I find yet another book exploring this frontier.

Herbert’s book describes the short-circuit dynamic called a “mental heuristic,” a way we guess-timate size, speed, value, and other qualities. The author notes that these operate for the most part in our favor, but in some settings we may be fooled and misled.

My background in psychiatry sensitizes me to the many ways people fool themselves using what Freud and his followers called the “defense mechanisms.” While the use of these is more marked and entrenched in “neurotics,”—the term isn’t actually used much in modern psychiatry any more—I find their operation to be ubiquitous, universal, though perhaps a little less compelling and dominant in healthy people.

Other categories for illusion lie not only in the familiar game of optical illusions and magic, but also in the realms of interpersonal manipulations and the cultural forms of political, social and religious propaganda and of course the machinations of advertisers. In the olden olden days, the ancient Greeks spoke of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, and it is still taught here and there in academia. Part of such teaching just involves presenting an idea clearly—something not that many people can do—and succintly—even fewer—, but some of the course content involves the use of logical fallacies—another word for mental illusions—that appeal to people’s tendencies to take short-cuts in reasoning and thereby lay themselves open to being misguided.

I plan to comment on these in this section of the blog called “follies.” Folly is foolishness, and foolishness as I see it is a compounding of ignorance and that illusion that what is known is sufficient. (I call that illusion “stupidity.”) In contrast, what I’m suggesting is a lively attitude of the possibility and indeed probability that one will fall into the tangled web of illusion. Critical thinking is a courageous attempt to identify and neutralize such illusions. It ain’t easy. I’ll also be open to your suggesting forms of folly, including catching me up when I err. I’d rather learn something enlivening (even if it proves me mistaken) rather than to wallow in my illusions. I plan to be giving a talk about illusion to my senior (elder) lifelong learning program this coming June and welcome your suggestions.

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