The human brain is a biological super-computer. It processes the data collected by your senses, filters out the mundane or unnecessary, then sends a summary to your conscious mind. Under pressure from external stimuli it dumps chemicals into your body, causing physiological changes. It stores memories, regulates bodily functions such as breathing and heart-rate, and manages motor-skills. Consciousness—the “you” inside your head—is also generated by your brain.
We’ve long known that our brains define who we are but a growing body of work suggests they also define the world around us. Paired with recent findings about the brain’s ability (and willingness) to deceive and a worrisome picture emerges.
If the reality you experience is different from the reality I experience, how can we ever hope to see eye to eye? If your brain lies to you, amends your memories, and reinforces a false image of who you are, how can you truly know yourself, let alone anyone else?
By the time information reaches your conscious mind it has already passed through two filters: your senses, which have evolved to identify the parts of reality that pertain to human existence, and your subconscious, where all the unimportant details get dumped and traumatic memories get buried. What reaches your conscious mind is a highly refined sample of reality, and it’s likely quite different from the reality experienced by others.
After this filtered reality hits your conscious mind it falls under the sway of two powerful forces, emotions and biases. Of the two, emotions have the ability to shape your reality most drastically. In short,
“Emotions are controlled by the levels of different chemicals in your brain. At any given moment, dozens of chemical messenger (neurotransmitters) are active. If you’re in danger, for example, your brain releases stress hormones that make you react faster. When the danger subsides, your brain sends out a calming signal that dampens the response.”
These neurotransmitters affect your perception, decision-making, and memory. Sound familiar? That's because it's the same effect as caffeine, alcohol, cannabis, heroin, methamphetamine, painkillers, antidepressants...the list goes on. Emotions--especially powerful ones--can have a profound effect on how we view people, events, and personal experiences.
Biases, on the other hand, work more subtly. They work behind the scenes, a lens through which we regard reality. We are all biased whether we want to admit it or not. It’s impossible not to be. We befriend those who share their values and interests. We judge friends more leniently than strangers. We ignore or deny flaws in our children. Past experience and values come together in a flash, casting an often inaccurate light on the people in our lives.
Relying on past experience to make sense of the world is problematic in its own right because your brain is a big fat liar, constantly editing your memory to protect your fragile ego or enforce your biases. Nowhere is this more obvious than with eye-witness testimony.
Psychologists have doubted the validity of eye-witness testimony since the early 20th century but it wasn’t until the advent of DNA testing that they figured out just how unreliable our memories are. The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing, reports that eyewitness misidentification occurs in approximately 75% of convictions that are overturned.
You should also know that your brain is capable of creating brand new memories. And just to make things interesting, it’s impossible to distinguish real memories from fabricated ones. Good luck with that.
Why is it important to know how your brain works? It all goes back to knowing the source. If your brain is the source of the reality you experience, shouldn’t you get to know it intimately? How can you accurately interpret your brain’s messages without first knowing how your brain operates?
Knowing your brain’s tendencies toward deceit allows you to accurately interpret the world around you. It helps you understand the people in your life, their motivations, and the reasons for their actions and beliefs. It also helps you know yourself, something that, while seemingly intuitive, is anything but.
When one acknowledges that we're all experiencing our own private realities in isolation, it becomes much easier to empathize with others. We’re all victims of our treacherous brains, each one of us convinced that his or her reality is in fact the objective truth and everyone else is ignorant, greedy, stupid, and so on.
This fervent self-confidence is most obvious among the religious. How can any religion claim to be the one true chosen religion of God when there are thousands of other competing religions out there? These people are being deceived, by the leaders of their faith, their scripture, but primarily by their minds. This isn’t an attack on theists; quite the opposite, I think we can learn a great deal from them, both in their errors and successes.
Don't want to be delusional anymore? Here's what you can do. Doubt yourself. Challenge your views of the world. Seek out new and radical ideas. Don’t allow your brain to dictate your reality. Dissolve your ego. Seek to understand others rather than judge them.
And most importantly, maintain an open mind.