Thursday, October 09, 2014

Holes in Reality

"The Hole in Reality" is the title of the science column by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty in the current issue of FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION (September-October 2014). It's about some of the myriad ways "your brain makes up the world." As many philosophers have taught and neuroscience now confirms, we don't perceive the outside world "as it is." Information gathered by our senses gets filtered by the brain in often surprising ways. To make sense of our environment, our minds rely on "short cuts" and "predetermined expectations" without which the volume of sensory input would overwhelm us. In short, "You don't see the world at all. You see a picture of the world that your brain constructs." As a result, we usually see what we expect to see.

Murphy and Doherty begin by illustrating this principle with examples of optical illusions. You can check out one of them here:

Dragon Illusion

The paper dragon appears solid and seems to turn its head to follow the viewer, even though in fact it's not moving (the observer is). The illusion of solidity gives the false impression of motion. The F&SF article also gives examples of how the mind plays tricks with distance and size, as in distorted rooms where people walking around appear to enlarge and shrink as they change position relative to the observer.

The article then goes on to discuss how the brain's ingrained expectations form our attitudes and reactions below the conscious level. Here's a page with some tests you can take to evaluate your own unconscious biases. They cover numerous different areas, such as race, gender, religion, etc.:

Implicit Associations

I took the "religion" test, just to find out how the page functions. Since it asks the subject to work as fast as possible, I'm not convinced it measures much more than one's hand-eye-keyboard coordination, but it's an interesting experience anyway.

The F&SF article talks briefly about confirmation bias—our tendency to seek information that supports our existing beliefs and neglect or filter out disproving data—and the "relevance paradox"—overlooking information we consider "distracting or unnecessary" because it doesn't fit into our preconceived pattern. Murphy and Doherty discuss how science fiction can, little by little, change what we perceive through that "hole in reality."

Historical fiction can sometimes have a similar effect, as occurred to me this week while rereading (yet again, but for the first time in a while) Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER. The heroine, Claire, a World War II nurse, has accidentally traveled through time from 1945 to 1743, where circumstances force her to marry Scottish Highland clansman Jamie Fraser. I can hardly wait until April to find out how the STARZ network series will handle the scene where Jamie punishes Claire with a beating for disobeying his order to stay where he left her. Because of her disobedience, she gets captured by the villain, British officer Black Jack Randall, thus putting not only Claire and Jamie but their entire group in danger. This section of the novel illustrates with stunning force that "the past is a different country" (to repeat one of my favorite quotations). Twentieth-century career woman Claire finds the custom of a man's administering corporal punishment to his wife appalling, and she doesn't think much more highly of the practice of thrashing children for misbehavior. Jamie—whom we know by this point to be a kind, honorable man who passionately cares for her—finds her attitude baffling. He recalls many instances of beatings from his own father, whom he respected and loved. Later in the book, we see a graphic illustration of the difference between that kind of parental discipline and brutal child abuse, which Jamie abhors. But will the TV series have the time and space to show all this context in a way that will prevent losing the audience's sympathy? After the beating, Claire reflects that up to then her eighteenth-century surroundings haven't seemed quite real to her. Compared to the horrors of World War II, skirmishes between small bands of musket- and claymore-wielding fighters feel almost quaint. King George and Bonnie Prince Charlie are names from classroom history lessons to her. Yet a sword can kill a man just as dead as a bomb.

C. S. Lewis remarks somewhere that the books of the past—and the books of the future, if we had access to them—by highlighting the unquestioned beliefs of other times and places, illuminate our own implicit beliefs. From the perspective of a time traveler from the past or future, or an alien visitor, doubtless people in our era hold world-view assumptions, shared by all political, ethnic, and religious sectors, that remain invisible to us because we see them as simply "the way things are." They represent the our brains' construction of reality. As Murphy and Doherty point out, science fiction can break open those world-views and create "holes" through which to view reality in fresh ways.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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