Supplement to Lecture 1:
September 29, 2013
TENDENCIES TOWARD ILLUSION
In 2005 I gave a
summer talk on the topic of illusion, posted here, and with a supplement here. This is a
further supplement to the introduction to a class at Senior
University Georgetown in the Fall of 2013, a class on “Thinking
about Thinking.” Risking being redundant, here are some of the
more common illusions:
1. The most common illusion, the first
one to be noted, is a belief that what one thinks and
perceives is not an illusion! “But I
saw it with my own eyes!” Much of science in the last
several hundred years has countered illusions of what seemed
to be so—that the Earth is flat, that the heavenly bodies go
around the Earth, that there aren’t germs because we can’t
see them, etc.
2..The second most common is the illusion that the
interpretations we give to our sensations are
objectively true. We really see it, but don't appreciate
what it is we see---or hear, touch, etc. People integrate
some perceptions and what to them seems plausible, but they
are in fact mistaken in these interpretations. Recognizing
that this can happen is uncommon. "I see what I see and
that's what it is." There's no awareness that what I think I
see has a major layer of interpretations. The realization
that interpretation is going on takes time to get
registered, and more time to sink in. This lack of awareness
that the interpretations of perceptions, while seemingly
plausible, are often mistaken and this double mistake leads
to sometimes tragic consequences.
3. The mind is most prone to over-generalization.
We meet one mean dog and we react to all dogs as if they’re
mean. If you behave in a way that I take to be a
disrespectful snub, I assume you meant it. (The illusion
here is that people mean what they do and there are no
unintentionally bothersome acts.)
3. There is not-knowing, which I call ignorance. Then there
is the assumption that what one knows is sufficient—which is
never true. Variations are that what is not known is not
worth knowing. Those who seem to know are just putting on
airs. The word is not out that what seems to be so may not
be so, so it’s a bit like selling people on germs or worlds
beyond our medieval solar system.
4. Many people feel something like this: "I am mainly conscious
and I allow that there may be some unconsciousness going on, but
not if I can help it." However, the truth is that most of what
goes on in the mind includes not only emotions, semi-fantasies,
half-thought images, intuitions, but also a great deal of what
has been called unconscious processes. Your breathing, for
example, can become conscious and controlled, but most of the
time it breathes for you. Thus, I view the mind as the little
thin membrane that forms at the top of a bowl of chocolate
pudding as it cools; or the biosphere, all life, which is in
relationship to the size of the earth as a thin membrane on its
surface. This “surface” is of course a very important component,
but it also tends to be taken as the whole. And the ordinary
mind—get this---disguises the more fluid-like middle, the
greater bulk of the unconscious.
Until a few hundred years ago people had no ideas about how deep
was the ocean or, deeper, the crust of the earth. And
similarly, the unconscious wasn’t just a graveyard of what we
didn’t want to acknowledge, as Freud hinted, but a vast service
field that often worked for us faster and more cleverly than we
could ever begin to do for ourselves.
2. The analogy is weak insofar as the processes of moving back
and forth from unconscious to conscious is much more dynamic and
capable of being facilitated by insight. What this class is
about is to note that the first step in insight is the notion
that there’s anything there to look at or to consider more
deeply. “You mean there’s more to my thinking than I think there
3. The problem is that people are deeply uncomfortable about a
lot of the stuff they think about, as if they would be better
people if they didn’t have such thoughts. In the late 19th
century this was dealt with by turning your mind towards the
positive. But the events of the First World War and related
events showed how savage people could be and that simply pushing
what we thought of as bad stuff away was too simplistic. The
challenge is to learn about and re-channel the thoughts and
feelings that are inclined to be bad. It’s not an easy challenge
at all, and I think it hasn’t really begun until around now.
This class is a tiny beginning, among other efforts.
4. The mind is quite capable of pretending something isn’t there
and then going on to pretend that this act of pretending never
happened; it didn’t need to, because that something really never
The first pretending is a little more
conscious, at first, and more adult. It is called “suppression”
and it involves deciding that x doesn’t need to be thought about
right now, or that it’s unnecessarily negative and it would be
better to step away from x.
The problem is that on occasion it really is
better to pay attention to x. So what is needed is a
meta-program that asks, “Is this okay to suppress,
procrastinate, put off, avoid, or is it really important for me
to pay attention, indeed, give it heightened attention?
5. When parts of the unconscious say, “Naw, it’s okay,” the
attentive mind is aware that this part may not be worth obeying.
The 21st century intelligent minds says, “Why?” It doesn’t just
6. But the lazy and 20th century trusting mind says, “Okay.” And
so suppression becomes repression. “Let’s just pretend this
conversation never happened.” “Okay.” And the mind pretends that
it is not pretending. This double whammy is pretty common and it
takes many forms.
7. One reaction is to become indignant or huffy if anyone even
implies that one is not thinking clearly, as if one is entitled
to the benefit of the doubt, as if this is a mark of disrespect.
In fact, one both senses but also often does not know that
indeed one is not questioning assumptions. One is obviously
thinking, but really this is maneuvering within a game within
which the assumption to play the game has been forgotten. It’s
no longer “just a game” but an occasion for serious anger. That
tends to drive off probing inquiries.
But it’s true: There are many different kinds of thinking, and
one can feel that one is indeed thinking when in fact all that’s
happening is that one is considering strategies as to how to
make it plausible that one is not digging deeper and questioning
assumptions. That could be considered a kind of thinking, yes.
There’s an alertness demanded in fending off interrogation. One
kind of thinking can fend off attempts to encourage deeper
thinking. But it feels like thinking.
8. Okay, now we get to the key point. The mind fools itself. And
it doubles this by convincing the self that it is not fooling
itself. It’s just thinking. More will be said about this further
on: there are scores of ways mind fools itself.
9. As a corollary, when it serves deeper purposes, the mind ends
to be quite open to being willingly fooled by others. The
boundary between being willingly fooled—“yes, I want to believe
that,”—and unwillingly fooled—“No, even a bit of reflection
would lead me towards suspicion about both your motives and the
possibility that what you propose is definitely NOT good for me,
if not positively bad!—is, in fact, fuzzy. Indeed, playing on
that fuzzy boundary are a host of parasites in the form of
political demagogues, advertisers, scam artists, con men,
seducers, family members you may have known, and other
10. This gets complicated! It’s complicated not because I make
it so, but because there are scores of major moves and hundreds
of minor moves and all sorts of combinations. It’s complicated
also because sometimes the moves are subtle, an adjustment
between half and three-quarters, or something like that—not all
11. Oddly enough, the complexity of self-deception is
particularly human. Monkeys can engage in self-deception, this
should be noted—more so with those with more complex brains. But
humans can do it with far greater subtlety.
I’m a psychiatrist who went into the field because it was the
most humanistic of the medical professions, and by humanistic I
mean that it dealt with qualities evinced only by human
beings—but not rats and monkeys. Qualities such as more complex
ways of loving and caring about others. But because of this very
complexity, humans have worked out ways of generating a number
of illusions and forms of self-deception and other-deception
that are vastly more subtle than a few of the tricks some
animals play on each other.
12. Most of the tricks are being done not by the conscious mind,
but by the unconscious. Yes, there are stage magicians and con
men who really learn what works in tricking others, but most
people do this automatically. The unconscious mind is in fact
many times more clever than the conscious mind. You can fool
others and yourself and go along with being fooled and the
conscious part of you has no idea this is going on. This is very
13. If you’re accused of manipulating and you don’t know you are
doing it, it seems sincere and right for you to be hurt and
offended and defensive. What most folks don’t know—they really
don’t—is that they can slip into manipulations without meaning
14. All this is compounded by the fact that those—everyone,
really—who fool themselves also convince themselves not only
that they’re not doing this—how could they when they don’t mean
to?—but indeed they are well-meaning! How could I be bad or
foolish when I think I’m trying to be good and wise? It does not
compute. But if we recognize how powerful and devious the
unconscious mind is, it begins to.
I was a bit neurotic this way. I sort of believed that all my
teachers and family and parents were telling the truth and I
just didn’t get it because I was stupid. Well, gradually, I
discovered several things.
A. Even though they—most—were sincere, they
fooled others as they fooled themselves.
B. Many of their deceits were widely known
cliches, common sense, or seemed that way. They seemed able to
overlook the way these popular social norms didn’t work. It was
as if they could both say, as did the Wizard of Oz, “Don’t pay
any attention to that little man behind the curtain.” But people
then believed it.
C. There were really crazy people and normal
people who were clearly not crazy, but I was confused, because
some of the things normal people spouted seemed as irrational as
the stuff crazy people said.
When I grew older I discovered that pretty normal non-crazy
people could believe stuff that was pretty far from reality. It
just seemed more plausible, but it was mistaken.
15. The more common mistakes involves some few principles:
A. Take everything literally.
B. If a little is true, more is even more true. The
idea that a little was true and more might be too much, and not
good—that appeared gradually.
C. You were either good or bad, sane or crazy. But
that’s not so. It took me a while, but finally I found that most
folks were somewhere in-between.
16. A lot of smart people used either-or thinking, so it must be
okay. Things, situations, conditions, might rightly be judged as
either-or. Not so, I later discovered. Many situations were
either in the middle or, more often, seemingly in the middle but
actually participating in variables not on the either-or scale,
other factors, things were more complex.
17. It seems impossible—remember the power of “seeming”—but you
could be good, sincere, have noble aspirations—and lots of other
people might validate this—and yet get caught up in seemingly
good but deeply short-sighted programs or policies and as a
result, you could do terribly evil things. The line, “the path
to hell is lined with good intentions” has continued to find new
meanings as really pretty well intentioned people—including
myself on a goodly number of occasions— would do foolish things
and either make trouble for others or get into trouble—or both.
18. Much that seems wise or clever at first has unintended
consequences. This, too, did not become apparent until after I
was a fully trained professional young adult. The education that
now I think I needed was not only not available until often it
was almost too late—middle adulthood—but also nowhere in the
curriculum. Indeed, looking back, I doubt whether most of those
designated as professors because of their evident erudition knew
what I now think of as essential to coping with life—such as
19. What made this even more complex and interesting, taking off
on these last few points, is that what passes for “common sense”
might better be thought of, as a comedienne lily Tomlin
noted (in a play by Jane Wagner), “Reality is just a collective
hunch.” Just because lots of folks, seemingly most folks,
believe or think a certain way does not ensure that such
thoughts are really rational or good.
Indeed, a great deal of bad thinking is just believing things
that were wrong. I encountered a saying—I think it might have
been attributed to Artemus Ward, a comedian in the United States
over a century ago who used a folksy dialect humor, and said,
pithily, “It ain’t what ya don’t know what gits ya inter
trouble, it’s tha stuff ya know fer sure what ain’t so.”
It’s hard to make this transition that I think is really needed
to get past the sheer self-righteousness that infests much of
politics and religion. And when Oliver Cromwell wrote to the
Presbyterian Elders in Scotland, saying, “By the bowels of
Christ, gentlemen, think ye that ye might be mistaken?” I don’t
know that he questioned himself equally.
A third caricature of this is expressed by the King of Siam,
played by Yul Brinner, in a song called “Puzzlement,” in the
1950s Broadway musical show, The King and I. The key verse has
this line: “There are times I almost think I am not sure of what
I absolutely know.”
20. I discovered and became fascinated with this: It’s not that
our oddness or quirkiness is the problem, I’ve found, except
occasionally—in true mental illness. But far, far more common is
the way we often take normality to extremes, we really believe
or take too seriously the guidelines that lubricate society.
Knowing when to make an exception and to have alternative
responses is one of the hallmarks of a good surgeon,
anesthesiologist, driver of a car, parent. Or saying it
backwards, one who only knows how to use a hammer tends to treat
everything as if it were a nail.
So part of life is developing a flexible and broad role
repertoire, and they sort of teach this in many professional
training programs, but rarely teach the key: Develop a flexible
and broad role repertoire, roles for detecting, analyzing,
responding, and knowing when to think out of the box (which I
talk about in the lecture on creativity).
21. Part of the problem was that the smartest people in the
culture—or so it seemed—confused the whole problem by lumping
together two categories—crazy and foolish—, and I for one
believed they were older, wiser, and that they knew “fer sure.”
That they were deeply mistaken about even a part—a not
insignificant part—about what they knew failed to occur to me.
They were so confident!
22. That some people could be so confident yet mistaken fooled
me for a long time. I became aware that lots of people don’t
think they know what they know—they’re unsure of themselves. I
was more like this, a bit timid and temperamentally inclined to
give others the benefit of the doubt. The temperamental
inclination was based on whether or not what you knew deeply
“felt” to be accurate. Later I realized (with the help of Eric
Berne’s line, “I’m okay, you’re okay,” that some people felt
okay and more than okay, they felt right. They felt this because
they “felt” that what they thought or perceived or interpreted
was indeed the way it was. It would not have occurred to them to
question this. However, not infrequently these folks were dead
This group who “feel” they do know even when they don’t can
present themselves as so confident that they become leaders. We
tend to believe them. I tended to. And only very gradually did I
discover that indeed they did not know, and worse, they did not
know that they did not know, and were deeply offended if one
might suggest that their knowledge was limited, much less
mistaken. This certainty that they were right had me buffaloed
for decades. But gradually, I came to see that they were indeed
mistaken and wondered at the ability of people to be so sure of
Regarding Oliver Cromwell’s aforementioned line, when one’s
status involves sincerity and belief, it’s can be gut-wrenching
to question oneself or allow oneself to be questioned. That’s
the paradigm that’s shifting in our lifetime, the shift between
traditionalism and even modernity and post-modernism. It’s an
epistemological shift—a fancy word that means that it really
matters that we think about how we think we know stuff. The
question is raised that the feeling of really knowing can be
self-deceptive. This is radical. If you don’t know, you know it,
right? Wrong? Sometimes you don’t know and you think you do!
That’s what we’re talking about here—an up-tick in what
intellectual humility is about, a questioning of
23. To restate. Consider that humanity is as infested by
misleading or partially inaccurate beliefs as it is by germs.
This is still for many a startling idea! Good people, seemingly
thoughtful people, continue to believe a wide variety of such
beliefs. They seem true to them.
24. There are a lot of different kinds of beliefs. One kind
consists of beliefs that everyone thinks, or so it seems, and
are misleading. Another type are those that are a little bit
true, taken in moderation, but no one says that more than a
certain amount is not good. This is also known as
overgeneralization. This happens, for example, when, as a young
child, if a dog barked and scared you, then later when you
were two, all dogs become scary.
Some of these were a little true for when you were a baby but
this was because you thought like a baby and they never were
really true, like your mommy was yours in every respect and
could never, should never love another. Then you had a younger
sibling and that made for problems. There are a whole bunch of
errors of early childish thinking that never get corrected. They
get disguised, covered over, but the primary illusion—there’s
still a little hope retained that there must be some way to get
back to the garden of eden.
25. Some forms of folly feed on the appeal that things really
are simple, and they would be simpler if it weren’t for mean
other people. Things are really very complex and the appeal of
that illusion can lead to terrible evils.
For example, if we only we get rid of—kill, if need by—whatever
minority we are told are the ones who make the trouble. This
scapegoating is a well-known tool of demagogues. It preys on the
common feeling, unconscious, mostly, that the world doesn’t have
to be this complicated. This leads to looking for whoever is
said to be complicating the world. It also seems that we’re not
mean in wanting to get rid of people who we think of as mean.
This is the way the mind creates compartments of non-logic.
26. The phenomena associated with illusion depend on the
tendency of people to believe what seems to be true.
27. It seems that world isn’t complicated. This seeming is a
projection onto the world of our desire for it not to be
complicated. It shouldn’t be because we don’t want it to be.
Therefore it isn’t. Now this is profoundly illogical,
unreasonable, but it doesn’t seem that way so it isn’t. We tend
to believe what we think, think what we believe. Then there’s an
illusory tendency to feel what we believe, and also to believe
what we feel. Clear thinking about thinking begins to uncouple
these illusions. Lots of folks don’t uncouple, but we should:
Don’t believe what you feel, nor feel what you
believe. Don’t think what you believe or believe what you
think—or feel. Uncouple these connections!
28. Our unconscious, our executive officer, is like ten or fifty
times as smart as we are.Its various maneuvers seem compelling.
Another word for this is verisimilitude, which means that it
seems so real.
29. It seems that the world should be the way we want it to be
and we won’t accept that it’s not. In psychoanalysis that
tendency is called “infantile omnipotence:” I want my dinner and
‘poof!’ there it is. But it’s also not infantile, nor do we need
to use that big word, “omnipotence.” It’s just that we confuse
how much magical thinking is part of ordinary adulthood. If we
say we want it then it will happen. This appeal to positive
thinking was the cause of the great economic and housing crash
A variation of this is the idea that a king may say “make it
so,” and his minions obey. The idea that the king has no clue
how it should be done is unthinkable, and more, it's hard to
think that really smart people don't know either. In fairy
stories, by virtue of his kingship he is granted the authority
to will and also the status to be believed that it can be done.
Surprisingly often the unconscious in the role of the chief
executive officer, the prime minister, can do it or at
least make it seem that it can be or has been done!
Here is a major source of folly! The one thing the unconscious
doesn’t do is work well in light of a review by the conscious
self asking—whoa, there, is this realistic? Can it indeed
be done? Are you just creating a Potemkin Village?
The allusion to a Potemkin village means something done that’s
phony but just for show. Potemkin was the prime minister of the
mid-18th century Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. She
wanted to visit her country, which was in fact submerged in
poverty and misery. Of course the idea of revealing the
wretchedness of the queen's country was unacceptable, so
Potemkin cleaned up the planned route, literally building up
nice-looking villages, like little movie-set-style scenery; gave
the people who would line the road nice clothes, put on a show
that did not reveal the actual conditions of the country-side.
It was like Disneyland, visiting countries and not having to
deal with the filth and flies there. So the mind can cleverly
make lies seem true and good, and we, fools that we are, have
tended to believe it.
30. News reporting is becoming ever-more decentralized and
scandal-mongering. You can’t get away with naughtiness even at
the highest levels of power. Before the later 1960s, news media
used to collude with an unwritten code of not exposing the
pecadillos of important men. “Boys will be boys.” More recently,
there’s been more incentive not to pull punches. But the point
is that many of your parents and grandparents were raised
believing the world was significantly less problematic and
idealized than it in fact was.
Saying this another way, news reporters or their editors used to
lie a lot. For example, most people didn’t know how deeply
crippled the President Roosevelt was. Nor did Presidents
have their affairs exposed. That didn’t happen until the late
60s with the emergence of popular little newspapers that are now
plentiful at most grocery store check-out stands. Not that these
scandal sheets report their new impartially---they distort their
stories a lot. But journalists suppressing the news before that
it was perfectly ethical to do so, and we bought into it.
Similarly, in this paternalistic culture, physicians often lied
to patients about their prognosis---especially if it were
hopeless---and that too was felt to be ethical until the late
1960s when Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross started talking about
We are living in a time when truth is getting more exposure and
this makes some folks quite uncomfortable. They don’t know
whether they’re being lied to once again about how they were
lied to before—No, it wasn’t a lie—or what! The world indeed is
very complex and folks don’t like it or understand why it should
be. They want a simple answer, but the reason why the world is
complicated is itself a very complicated.
31. Part of the problem for our world is that humanity can
think, but it cannot (on average) think a lot or think well. Any
help people can get in this will advance the evolution of our
species. There are a number of other illusions that block clear
thinking. The following are assertions as if they were
unconscious statements, attitudes towards themselves, others,
32. People are inclined to think: "I already know this. I think.
It seems. I know enough. I don’t need to bother learning more.
This that I know seems sufficient. Don’t bother me with more
facts or other perspectives. It make my head hurt."
33. Also: "I don’t like that things are so complicated. So it
seems to me that they’re really not complicated but that the
others are making it unnecessarily complicated. Maybe they’re
just trying to be mean." Less conscious is this kind of thought:
"I know people can be mean this way because I sometimes play
with others by messing with their minds, playing a verbal game
of peek-a-boo. I don’t realize how off-puttng it is, if they
don’t know what seems obvious to me as the key to the joke."
Thinking that this messing with the mind is done by others is
34. People also project their preferences, which is why the
playwright George Bernard Shaw a century or so ago said, "Do not
do unto others as you would have them do unto you; they may not
have the same tastes." (A more reliable test is the Jewish
version that turns it a bit: What is hateful to you don't do to
It’s a bit of work for most
people to go beyond their comfort zone and consider what others
are like; or to consider that other people prefer different
things, enjoy different values. The tendency is to think, "It
seems that they should relate to the world as I do, because it
seems that the world is the way I see it. This tastes good and
that is interesting, right? Wrong?? You mean there are
other people who think this tastes bad and that is boring? Hard
to imagine, inconceivable, no way, you’ve got to be kidding."
Some variations of the above might be: How can he like her when
I find her unappealing? And for that matter, what does she see
in him? It’s hard—not impossible, but difficult—to appreciate
that folks have different tastes. It seems that what I think is
good or true or beautiful really describes the world out there
and is not a matter of the consciousness of the perceiver, my
35. One should maintain a facade of knowing. That seems to be a
hallmark of growing up. Being unsure is being too baby-ish. Be
decisive. Stay cool. Being angry overwhelms being unsure and you
can dominate the situation and get your way—at least for a
while. If you’re not into intimidating, then at least shut up
and shrink away, be shy, non-disclosing. Nowhere, it seems, is
there a social norm or expectation to know what you want clearly
and to ask for it nicely and be willing to negotiate.
36. People might half think to themselves, unconsciously: I
don’t know how to negotiate and anyway why should I? Back to
entitlement: I should get this and you should give it and my
unconscious can readily figure out a justification for this
stance. You owe it to me because I’ve been victimized. You have
the power if only you’d use it. It’s not fair!
It’s a little painful as I write these words to consider that
beneath a surface facade of chit chat I fear that many people,
good people, sort of think this way because why shouldn’t they?
There’s no consensus yet that these thoughts are tacky and
foolish. Everyone does it and we see this level of consciousness
on television all the time. Of course it leads to friction, but
it seems to be just the innate folly of humans—and it’s
pleasantly exaggerated so we cannot see—cannot identify
clearly—what exact issues are being played with. (I even
question whether the scriptwriters see these dynamics and their
underlying assumptions clearly.)
Admittedly, these folks on television let it hang out just a tad
more unconsciously, boldly. This is after all part of
dramatization. Most actual people I know are far more muddy,
less melodramatic, and no one actually opens the hidden category
of unrealistic expectations. There’s a funny collusion here: I
won’t call you on your unrealistic expectations if you don’t
call me on mine. I’ll continue to want to be in relationship
with you without really asking you to think or to confront
yourself. Or to get clear what the actual transaction has
been that we’ve found ourselves in a funny or tragic mess.
Let’s just move on, keep the action going.
Yeah, it’s like a boxing match, I get hit but I keep on keepin’
on and trying to hit back. What would happen if one stopped and
shouted, “Stop that! That hurt! Don’t hurt me!” ? Probably
the other would smile and say, “What’s the matter, can’t you
take it?” As if taking it were what grown ups do, this is
business as usual. Coarseness of sensibility sometimes dominates
if the society supports it, and it does by valorizing military
values and battle.
I’m not saying that military service is inhumane: Historically,
few thing are as human as war. But it represents a lesser
level of consciousness, not what we want our kids to be like. As
yet, though, peacemaking gets far less recognition or
social value. Gandhi? Sort of indulgent admiration — not
the respect given to The Hulk.
37. People also masking their foolishness and compensate by continuing
to do good things. Really, people are trying to be good, loving,
dutiful, kind, and such activities disguises any unconscious
guilt associated with their participating in folly, because it
seems that it should. And people really do a lot of good stuff,
giving of themselves in many ways. For example, a slave owner
might just say to his daughter, "Never you mind about them,
let's just think of the dress for your birthday party." This
distraction may even be unconscious on the part of the parent,
modeling the appropriateness of compartmentalizing our minds.
38. Consider that for all our progress, as we enter an era when
psychology is more mainstream, we as a species are only at the
boundary of knowing about how very unconscious we all are, or
how to fix it. My solution is not one-to-one psychoanalysis, but
rather by talking about psychology openly in school, and many
programs for promoting social and emotional learning (SEL).
39. It's not easy to make such acts of discrimination. I also
get sucked into appreciating the good that is done. I want to
accentuate the positive. But a little focusing on what yet needs
to be fixed helps. The way to hell, as they say, is paved with
good intentions. It seems these should offset a little laziness
of mind, but examining the problem objectively, it doesn’t. It’s
magical thinking. It’s as if one has taken meticulous good care
of the car, washed it, polished it, then it’s too much to expect
that one has to keep adequate amounts of gasoline in it. Also,
there's a need to weave in tactfully the virtues and pleasures
in thinking about feelings and emotions and relationships.
There’s a need to envision to be the next step in social
and emotional education: psychological literacy. This needs to
happen at a certain critical mass, such as a thousand efforts
nationwide, or four thousand efforts internationally.1. There
are lots of illusions. In Hindu mythology, there is a goddess of
illusion, “Maya,” and her role is to make that which is not real
seem really real. The operative word here is “seem.” In that
perspective, much of what humans experience is at least somewhat
40. Death is bad, a tragedy, is a most common illusion, but were
there not death, the misery of nobody dying might well be far
41. There is a confusion between types of mental illness. Mental
retardation is not clearly differentiated from psychosis, though
in some people both may appear. The biggest problem came because
Freud insufficiently differentiated between psychosis and
neurosis, and other followers tried to treat psychotic
conditions with psychotherapy. The problem is that there are
almost always some psychological distortions in association with
many types of illness—not just psychiatric illness. But
it’s pretty clear that mental illness is not mere folly. The
situation is more complex, but this is not the place to go into
42. A great deal of illusion is part of the social
matrix—political and social myths are prevalent, and advertising
has added many ideas about what is the good life, what is
happiness (hint: consume more stuff!), and so forth.
43. Many general cultural illusions are actively promoted,
elaborated, shaped to be even more convincing by political
propagandists, publicity agents, “spin doctors,”
advertisers, sales people, etc.. Many sales people are sincere
in believing their own words.
44. Much of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, includes how to
appeal to the non-rational ways the mind works, such as the
“bandwagon”: it must be right / good because it seems that
everybody is doing / wanting / buying / thinking it. There
are many such rhetorical fallacies—things that seem plausible
but if the argument or sales pitch is closely analyzed, it falls
45. Many illusions are fine, benign, on the whole, don’t hurt
anyone and help people to cope with life. The problem lies with
not being aware of the possibility that what these illusions
suggest may not always be helpful or true. An attitude of
wondering with a touch of skepticism may be something you should
keep in your repertoire.
46. The power of an illusion is that at first or maybe even
second glance it seems true. That we are not infested with
illusory thinking is itself illusory: We are indeed saturated by
such notions and appearances. People with a great deal of
education and habits of rigorous analysis are almost as caught
up in illusion as people without that education. It’s human.
47. The illusion that we are not living in a state of illusion
is primary. A variation that we know what we think and only
those who are weak in their minds don’t is another
illusion. The unconscious involves all the mental
operations of which we are not explicitly aware—and that’s most.
48. The fact that we can at times pay attention to or notice
aspects of mind or perception gives us the feeling that we are
mainly consciously thinking, but much of the time these
operations don’t happen.
49. You can trim it a bit, and focus on this or that illusion,
but it’s not possible to “get rid of” illusions, no matter how
much psychoanalysis one undertakes, or classes in logic. It’s
entirely possible to generate complex systems that are both
mythic and yet pretend to be in no way irrational. But they are
if you dig deeply enough.
50. Critical thinking is rarely fully taught, because to teach
it thoroughly would invite questions few teachers are prepared
to answer, like why is school compulsory.
51. Do not believe what you think. Your thinking may be
erroneous. Check it out. Do not think what you believe or want
to believe or think you must believe or are even dimly inclined
to believe because there are illusions of all kinds and often
you’re fooled or you fool yourself. Also, do not believe or
think what you feel. Sometimes that’s the wisest way to proceed,
but sometimes that’s the dumbest way to go—and how do you figure
out which is which? One word, “thinking,” hints at a type of
thinking that double-checks, that surveys the situation,
re-thinks it. Not infrequently first impressions are fine, and
not infrequently they are deeply misleading! So critical
thinking is important
52. Thinking cannot be neatly separated from feeling, believing,
hoping, relating, and so forth. Thinking can blur into the
appreciation of art and other enjoyments—what is called
“aesthetic” functions, sizing up, and so forth. And in much of
life they flow as naturally as bodily functions. But early in
life we learn bowel and bladder control—don’t always go whenever
you feel like it. So we learn to disconnect and
compartmentalize. There are times to do this, and times not to.
53. This is annoyingly complicated: There is a common illusion
that things should be simple, they really are. This is not
so. We loved that idea, but didn’t grasp that reality is
in fact not able too be simplified much because it really,
really is complicated. Efforts to simplify occasionally work,
but more often interfere with deep exploration by pretending
that the field is far simpler than had been assumed—and
simplistic thinking distorts reality. It’s full of generalities
only slightly more foolish than all American Indians being
capriciously warlike, because they played that role in the
movies of early Hollywood.
54. The illusion that science will reveal all is an illusion,
too. Also that reality can be expressed as “formulas,” and there
are people—scientists—who know what it means—denies the reality
that the most knowing people realize they’re just at the
beginning of a host of mysteries.
55. Psychology should not be overly associated with
psychopathology. That is one facet that was given
excessive attention because there was money in it. But from
another point it overly associated psychotherapy with
psychology. Let’s note, in fact, that a great deal of psychology
wonders about the minds of otherwise perfectly healthy work.
Marie-Louise von Franz wrote, “The real psychology is a
psychology that is for everybody. It naturally includes the
problems of clinicians, but is not concentrated solely on that
56. A good deal of psychology remains mysterious. It’s not
absolutely clear that all mind arises from (rather than through)
the brain. Could there be any sources of inspiration or
creativty beyond the brain? I suspect so but it’s hard to prove.
Also, the fact we know so much more than a century or two ago
does not mean that we know anywhere near all that is to be
known. I suspect the opposite, that we know now much more than
before, but we also know there is much, much more that remains
to be discovered. So humility is called for.
57. Much needs to be done to continue to make ever-finer
distinctions, to notice areas of grey where we had previously
thought in terms of black-and-white.
58. We must note that it’s common for many people to feel
entitled to life being simple, and such folks resent all this
complexity, as if those in charge could make it simple if they
only would. That it really is very complicated is a truth that
many people have not accepted in their heart of hearts.
59. Psychology isn’t a neat compartmentalized topic but rather
an aspect of almost every other topic. Mixed with engineering,
it’s called design. Books have been written on the psychology of
economics, of politics, of education. They also explore these
topics from the overlap of psychology and neuro-science and
other fields. Nowadays, more psychology is being brought
into sales and commerce.
60. What struck me—but I never got clear until much later—is
that mental illness involves both disorders in the processing of
thoughts and feelings, but also a variable amount of misleading
thoughts. I half-got this when I was a teenager and I became a
bit of a error-hunter. I’ve known some folks who like to hunt
for mistakes in grammar and if they find their niche they become
copy-editors. I know a person here who loves to find problems
with computers that can be solved by deleting excessive programs
or getting rid of viruses. Lots of people find their calling and
something that intrigued me was that there were tons of things
going on that didn’t click and I became interested in finding
out what they were and how they worked.
61. There has been insufficient differentiation between mental
illness and problems of daily living---"crazy" and "folly."
Mental illness was thinking out of control. But some of it
seemed to be more psychological, and Freud took on some of these
cases. Freud was right and he was wrong. I don’t think he
appreciated how much he might have been wrong, and how orthodox
his organization—and he—could be in saying, “This ex-colleague’s
theories are nonsense.” Freud did this, excommunicated, more
than Jung and Adler—guys who were at one point next-in-line to
the top, no minor thinkers. So this tendency to push for his own
doctrine stamped his entire genre with a quality that’s closer
to religion than science—and old-fashioned religion at that.
But that blurry area and the tendency Freud had to need and want
money led him to use his method on the normal neurotics and
people who wanted to be analysts in the 1920s. This wrecked the
game in my opinion, because he clearly mixed the two, crazy and
folly, treating crazy as just severe folly. That’s like treating
smallpox as an allergic rash! Really, they are very very
What struck me—but I never got clear until much later—is that a
great deal of crazy is bad thinking. I half-got this when I was
a teenager and I became a bit of a error-hunter. I’ve known some
folks who like to hunt for mistakes in grammar and if they find
their niche they become copy-editors. I know a person here who
loves to find problems with computers that can be solved by
deleting excessive programs or getting rid of viruses. Lots of
people find their calling and something that intrigued me was
that there were tons of things going on that didn’t click and I
became interested in finding out what they were and how they
The psychological-ization of madness was a deep error that has
begun to be recognized in the last quarter century—but it’s such
a mess, sociologically, economically, and there are several
middle categories of trauma and addiction and the mixture. Folly
is ever-present even in madness, please note, just as bacteria
are always compounding a condition that might be viral in
Everybody has a little folly, and part of what life is deals
with correcting erroneous beliefs. I used to think all sorts of
things—cats were girls and dogs were boys—that seemed pretty
obvious to me for a while when I was a kid—and then I found out,
gradually, that there were boy cats and girl dogs and, well, it
was confusing for a while.
Now it’s harder to discover a mistaken idea if many or most
people whom you respect, most people who seem more sure of
themselves, agree that this or such is the way it is. Only much
later you discover that it isn’t that way at all. This then
brings you to questioning the basis of the character of the
people you still respect: Are they dumb, crazy, arrogant, what?
They don’t seem that way.
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