Improving the Narrative: Enlightenment and Illusions at CSICon 2018

October 20, 2018

I want to believe.

Not in UFOs (okay, I want to believe in them a little), but in the power of enlightenment and the better angels of our nature. I want to believe that humans have the power to overcome the limitations of our narrowly focused senses and use our squishy little brains to bring ever-improving well-being to the people with whom we share this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Steven Pinker believes, and he has two books full of evidence to back it up. In an era when everything looks to be blatantly and obviously going terribly wrong, Pinker’s optimistic message is the ultimate contrarian, “turns out” take of our time. Is he right? (By the way, at the top of the post is a picture of him shaking Bill Nye’s hand that I just happened to catch at just the right moment. You’re welcome.)

Well, he’s not wrong about the things that have gotten better. It’s unmistakable, in measure after measure, in almost every way one can think to gauge the well-being of our species, things are looking up. Now, you have to zoom back at least a few decades, if not a few centuries or millennia, to see the trendlines move in a positive direction, but up they indeed go.

But it doesn’t feel like it, does it?

Let’s put Pinker’s presentation aside for the moment and jump to the mind-bending demonstration of visual illusions presented by Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik. These two neuroscientists provided example after example of how just unbelievably awful we are at perceiving the world as it actually exists.

Oh, you thought that was a set of circles? Nope! It was squares. OR WAS IT??? Now they’re actually squircles. WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN???

Or: Oh, you thought those balls were rolling up toward the top of a ramp all by themselves? Nope! You were just looking at it wrong, and they were really rolling down like balls ought to do. See it now? OF COURSE YOU DON’T BECAUSE YOUR BRAIN WON’T LET YOU.

And as we rub our sore, sprained brains, Stephen Macknik taunts us with observations like, “Looks Good. Shouldn’t. Does.”

It all kind of went like that.

As Macknik put it, “Your brain would rather defy the laws of physics than show you the world as it really is.” Well that sounds some lot of people with enormous power that I know.

“The brain is limited,” said Susana Martinez-Conde, “and we don’t have the resources to process the vast amount of sensory data that comes in.”

In other words, it’s hopeless! We simply cannot perceive reality in full. We can approach it, we can approximate it, we can come to collective consensus about it. But as Macknik said, “We’re constantly just sliding on the ice.”

So here’s the Pinker-esque “turns out” moment about all this. Our brains evolved the way they did so as to best handle all this sensory data to our benefit. After all, a brain can only get so big and demand so many calories. So it makes do. When there are blanks in what we can perceive, our brain tries to fill them in. It looks for structure, making the bet that a structure exists at all. It “improves narratives.”

Oh, now that’s interesting, isn’t it? “Improves narratives.” Let’s let our limited brains churn on that for a moment.

At the beginning of the afternoon, we heard from Deborah Hyde on the subject of vampires, and how on Earth people ever came to invent and believe in such things. As is often the case with such things, much of our ideas about vampires can be traced to attempts to explain what we otherwise could not. Disturbing behavior, claims of night visitations, deforming diseases and death. Putting herself in the shoes of some medieval European trying to explain some odd activities, she mused, “What shall we do? These people are doing some really weird shit.”

So the myth of vampires developed to fill in these gaps, to find a structure, to improve the narrative.

See what I did there?

Susana Martinez-Conde, one of the neuroscientists, said, “Illusions are part and parcel of how we see the world.”

The question remains: Are things actually getting better? Right now, it really doesn’t seem so. But perhaps that’s because of the limitations of our brains. We can’t possibly see the whole picture. Not only can we not look at all peoples throughout history in a non-abstract way in order to get the “correct” perspective, we can’t even process the torrent of information we get about this very moment in time.

Pinker also reminds us that we are all subject to a negativity bias (he used the example that people tend to think that tornadoes cause more deaths than asthma attacks when the opposite is true), and our information diet from the news is limited to stuff that did happen (a tornado killed some people), while never telling us about what didn’t happen (another month with no deaths by tornado!).

Unlike vampires, enlightenment is not a myth, Pinker tells us. It is not only true, but it belongs to all of us. The benefits of reason, science, and humanism are empirically measurable, and we don’t need to simply trust our lyin’ eyes.

You know, those same eyes that told us the balls were rolling up when they were really rolling down.

So maybe it’s okay if we feel like things are out of control, even if they’re not, because our brains need to fill in the gaps. We have to be careful not to go too far in our pessimism, or we start thinking that all news is fake news, that balls really do roll up, or that vampires stalk us in the night. Instead, we can temper our transitory dread with the gentle reminder that we aren’t actually seeing the whole picture. And thanks to the tools we’ve forged with science, we can get better at grasping what is and is not so, improve our narrative in actual fact, and sense the progress that we are truly making.