Our Conscious Illusions

by Stephen Mills on September 29, 2010


This article is rather long, but still will only take a few minutes to read.  It is a small compilation of amazing phenomena that to me demonstrate how little we really know about what our conscious minds are actually doing.  Some and maybe much of what we subjectively experience may be an illusion and what is actually happening “out there” may be a lot different.  I find it all incredibly fascinating and I hope you do too.  Some of this is really hard to accept because it strikes at what we call free will, but I would ask you to open your mind a bit and go where the evidence leads.

There are people who can clearly see and pick up objects when instructed to do so.  And yet these same people will insist they are blind.  Their conscious mind has no visual picture.  There are other people with the opposite problem.  They clearly cannot see, but believe they can.  If you asked them to describe how you look they would.  The description would be inaccurate because they are blind, but their conscious mind is creating a picture of you in their heads.

Split-brain patients who have no idea why their right brain picked up a fork, will make up a plausible sounding story with their left brain and they believe it.  They have no idea that they just made it up.  Evidently our brains are more than willing to make up a story that is false as long as it is plausible.  Remember that the next time you explain why you did something.  Also consider the following.

Experiments have shown that your brain is often making decisions about what to do before you consciously think you have decided.  In an article in the April 13th 2008 issue of Nature Neuroscience, the authors described an experiment in which computer analysis of brain scans were able to predict which choice a subject would make up to seven seconds before the subject consciously decided which choice to make.  While the predictions were not perfect, they far exceeded chance.  This is a replication of earlier controversial experiments indicating the same thing.  One scientist even hooked up a machine to his subjects that detected their brains decision to push a button.  He then had the machine advance a slide that the subject was deciding to advance by pushing the button.  Those subjects were completely surprised by seeing the slide advance before they consciously were aware that they had decided to push the button and advance the slides!

Ponder the implications for a moment.  Even when we have time to consciously decide, we may not be actually consciously deciding.  We may be consciously believing we are consciously deciding something our brain has already decided unconsciously.  Maybe it’s like the split brain patient and we are just making it all up.

Susan Blackmore describes an interesting illusion that demonstrates how our stream of consciousness can fool us:

Consciousness also does funny things with time. A good example is the “cutaneous rabbit”. If a person’s arm is tapped rapidly, say five times at the wrist, then twice near the elbow and finally three times on the upper arm, they report not a series of separate taps coming in groups, but a continuous series moving upwards―as though a little creature were running up their arm. We might ask how taps two to four came to be experienced some way up the forearm when the next tap in the series had not happened yet. How did the brain know where the next tap was going to fall?

How indeed?  It’s an illusion and our subjective experience does not reflect what really happened.  If our conscious representation of what was happening “out there” was a real-time realistic representation, this illusion would not be possible.

A couple of months ago while watching the Wimbledon men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych, I remembered some articles I had read about how long it takes a picture to form in our conscious mind after the photons strike our retinas.  It’s at least 100 milliseconds and maybe as much as 200 to 300 milliseconds.  So if you do the math, you would conclude that when Nadal serves to Berdych, the ball will be well on its way across the court and maybe even at the net, before Berdych would have a conscious picture in his mind of Nadal’s racquet striking the ball.  By the time Berdych “watched” the ball into his racket it would be bouncing off the backstop.  This basically makes it physiologically impossible for Berdych to consciously react to the serve in time to hit it; the ball is moving too fast for that.  So how does he hit it and why does he think he is observing it all in real time?  How does a batter hit a pitch coming at him at 100 mph?  Does he really see it in slow motion like he might claim?

One theory that has some clear evidence for it is that our brains see into the future.  For moving objects the brain doesn’t draw a picture in your conscious mind of what it actually sees, but draws a picture in your mind of where it predicts the object will be when it takes into account its own visual processing delay.  I can hardly get my mind around that one but I’ve read about some experiments that support it.  I’ve also read the theory that it is the much faster unconscious mind that is controlling the action.

When you are driving down a street and a child runs out in front of your car, your foot comes off the accelerator and moves toward the brake long before you are consciously aware of seeing the child.  When you see what looks like a snake or an actual snake you jump out of the way before your brain can present the picture in your conscious mind.  I’ve experienced this with our cat.  It pounces with such lightning speed, I am jumping before I see it.  Our brains can even see and interpret images that are too fleeting to register at all in our conscious minds.  These phenomena are all demonstrable in the lab.

Our memories are notoriously bad.  Each time we recall a memory we must store it all over again.  The corruptions and mistakes in recall are thus made part of the new memory and we can’t distinguish the difference between the true and the false.  People who have false memories implanted will often insist they are real even after they have been told they were planted.  Yet even knowing all this, I subjectively experience my own memories as accurate.  That doesn’t make them true; many of them likely are seriously in error.

To me this is all endlessly fascinating.  It certainly does not match our subjective experiences or intuitive beliefs.  But I don’t take it all too seriously.  The fact that it is our unconscious minds controlling much of our behavior doesn’t mean it is in someway not us.  I do not believe our stream of consciousness is just an endless stream of fantasy.  We are way too successful a species for that to be the case.  Our conscious minds obviously work for us in some way and we function quite well with them on a day-to-day basis.

As humans we have a remarkable ability to examine our own minds, but we must do it in a rigorous and scientific manner.  In that regard, we must let go of our personal and subjective biases and go where the evidence leads.  The neurosciences are in their infancy and I believe we have many more surprises to come.  I can hardly wait.

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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October 4, 2010 at 5:25 am

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandy September 30, 2010 at 12:18 am

Even before I finished reading the post compleletly I realized I am completely guilty of this exact behaviour especially with my previous cooments on your last post. Is that ironic?

Those posts were incomplete and inaccurate. So from now I am going to make a conscious decision to slow down my decision making matrix. Will that help me make better decisions?

I will tell you what, it has already helped me realize that some of what I wrote before was directionless.

Thanks for the great post Stephen.


Jonny October 4, 2010 at 10:50 am

The brain is indeed a wonderful thing.
Jonny´s last blog post ..How To Enter Into The WEALTHY VIP 10 Club Without Illegally Sneaking In


Karsten H. October 8, 2010 at 5:50 am

I have often found that people don’t like to hear about this . Personnaly I think it was a mistake to call it the “unconscious”. It sort of provides an excuse. Yes, I probably have such a thing – but luckily it is unconscious !!! – Like in “not working right now”.
You say it quite nicely yourself – it “doesn’t mean it is in someway not us”.
But a lot of people (including yours truly) have a tremendous fear of losing their ego (for good reasons, that is). And considering how frail the ego really is, the miracle seems to be how well it works – most people are happy to remain inside their egos all their lives. And to them that is all there is …
About the speed thing: tradition has it that the difference in speed is 30,000:1 you can e.g. read Gourdjeff.
I read somewhere that the greek definition of reality was pragmatism. The Roman notion of reality was ideal reality. Maybe we need a shift from chaotic reality to virtuality …


Colin Copley October 8, 2010 at 6:06 am

Very Interesting

Thank You


Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 16, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Like you, I’m quite intrigued by the information we’re getting from nueroscience. It really is amazing to learn more about how the brain works. So much of what seems like reality is very different from what we believe it to be. Over the past few years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that there is a whole lot I do NOT know. And that will continue to be the case when I die. The great part is that I’m okay with this. I’m not one of those people who are stuck in know-it-all mode. I appreciate and find joy in mysteries, including the illusions of the human mind.
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog post ..25 Amazing Self Improvement Ideas


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