Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing

To my son Tommy,

A mind can be a terrible thing.  Though totally amazing for what it does and can accomplish, it is completely unreliable and easily fooled.  I was reminded of that yesterday while listening to NPR.  They were discussing false memories.

In some study, people were shown four pictures of what they were told are key events, three of which were real and one was photoshopped with an event that never happened.  For examples of the faked memory  they have a picture of  President Bush relaxing at his ranch with Roger Clemens during Hurricane Katrina and President Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  These events never happened.  Yet over one third of the people not only remembered when they first saw the fake picture but could tell additional details like where they were or how they felt and a whole story.  They in essence believed with their whole heart that they had seen this before.  It happened more often if the person differed ideologically from the person in the picture.  In other words, Republicans were more apt to believe the Obama picture because they wanted to believe it and Democrats were more apt to believe the Bush picture because they wanted to believe it.  But less than two thirds of the people said, they don't remember it happening, which of course is accurate because it didn't happen.  I wonder how many said I don't remember but I am not surprised and am now appalled.

In another study that I have seen in the past, people were shown a video and asked to count how many times a ball was passed amongst a group of people.  In the video a guy in a gorilla outfit walks right in front of the camera.  A good amount of people never saw the gorilla.  They would even get combative and tell you that the tape was switched when the tape was replayed to prove to them there was a guy in a gorilla outfit.

Thus I reiterate, a mind can be a terrible thing.  It can see things that aren't there, miss obvious things that are there, forget things that happened, and remember things that did not.  Now these flaws in the human mind has been known and abused for years by magicians, con-men, poker players, and political propagandist.  I show you a picture of an atrocity, no matter how untrue or doctored, and if you are ready to believe will.  Then I take you in your emotional state of outrage and fill your mind with more falsehoods and dribble.  Social media is capitalizing on this with misquoted quotes and doctored photos and lies and falsehoods to prove everyone's point.  And most people are falling for it.  And if you point out the gorilla, most people will yell out you no matter how wrong they were.  I point this out to you for multiple reasons.

First to warn you not to fall for it.  No person, no matter their IQ, nor their education level, nor how strong they think their mind is, is beyond the reach of such mistakes of the mind.  You have to stay ever vigilant and ask yourself "How do I know this?" and "Is this true?" and "Is this source credible?".  When you do find yourself falling for a propaganda technique, admit your mistake.

Secondly, forgive people who fall for such techniques.  If you must point out the "gorilla" or "elephant" in the room, do so gently and back off.  Everyone is susceptible to such errors.  Those that admit their mistake, and admit they knew it was too good to be true but just wanted to believe it anyways, are truly stand up people and are worth knowing.  But even if they don't, don't judge too harshly.

Finally, I bring up this point to encourage you to study and know how all this works.  To borrow a line from a Jimmy Buffet song, your father has "read dozens of books about heroes and crooks and learned much from both of their styles".  I learned my magic tricks, more than most.  I know where to look for misdirection.  I read about con-men and their schemes and how things work.  I learned how to double deal in poker and how to bluff with the best of them.  I know how to influence people falsely.  I learned how to convince a bar customer he is getting more liquor for his money with showmanship techniques that use the same amount of liquor.  I learned all this so I didn't fall victim and so I could also learn how to do things the right way.  If you become a student of human nature and a student of the mind and its limitations, it can help you in all aspects of life, but please only use this for good causes.

I could go on and on about the mind.  I could talk about experience versus memory and bring up Daniel Kahneman and other people your dad admires.  I could bring in the fact that you think (even if it is think wrongly) is suggested by Rene Descartes as the only real evidence that you exist.  I could delve deep into the mind and the altering effects of drugs and alcohol.  There is a bunch of different areas that I could go with a conversation about your mind, but the point is protect your mind and question things and think for yourself.  A mind can be a terrible thing, but if used properly and to its fullest, it can also be one of the most precious gifts on this earth.

Sincerely with love from your dad,

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