Home Books Papers Cartoons Bio

Adam Blatner, M.D.

(June 10, 2011) (Webpage supplement to a talk about illusions for the summer program of the Senior University Georgetown)
    (In 2013 I added more links to Illusion under the heading of "meta-cognition" or "Thinking about Thinking." )

What I mean by illusion is any thought or feeling-thought that may have a bit of external reality that it's based on, but is significantly influenced by mental attitudes, feelings, cultural biases, and so forth.

Optical illusions are the most common examples alluded to, and there are thousands of websites that offer examples, plus millions more that allude to this dynamic (just google optical illusions). There are also auditory illusions, illusions associated with every perceptual mode, illusions that emerge in the absence of adequate perceptual inputs (e.g., Charles Bonnet's Syndrome), and so forth. This webpage won't devote attention to perceptual illusions of this type, other than to say that some of the features of perceptual illusions also apply to more psychological illusions.

For example, there is a tendency of the mind to generalize. Perceptually, this is associated, for example, with the function known (originally in German) as "Gestalt." This involves the tendency to see a pattern when it is suggested by the whole. It reflects the innate tendency of mind to generate meaning from what may be originally perceived as chaotic.

There is also the tendency of mind to focus on certain elements it finds to be salient, while other elements receded into the background. Yet this figure-ground dynamic can be ambiguous in some cases. However, it helps us to focus at parties and to hear others in a noisy room.

Inescapable and Good Illusions

I've come to the provisional conclusion that mind cannot escape from the attribution of certain illusory qualities on perception. I hold with Kant that mind cannot apprehend reality directly, so that noumena---actual out there-ness---is always experienced as phenomena---the mixture of out-there with bias or expectation superimposed on it.

Therefore, I don't object to illusions per se. Rather, I promote the idea of subjecting our notions, illusions, myths, concepts, models of reality, whatever, to the process of re-evaluation when that is called for. I promote the idea of learning to come up with new ideas, illusions, poetic metaphors, of creative mythmaking, improvisation, creative thinking, when the old notions may not be working so well.

I think that many---perhaps most---illusions are not only harmless, but often postively beneficial. They add juice, pleasure, imagery, savor, liveliness to mere thought. They add aesthetic values beyond mere coherence. I'm reminded of our present theory that most germs again are not harmful, and many are beneficial in that they occupy ecological niches that might be taken by less beneficial or harmful germs if they weren't there. More, there is growing evidence that a normal load of germs keeps the immune system in optimal tone. I suspect that illusion does the same for the mind.

However, another metaphor I find useful is driving a car. Most of the time one can rest into habit, with a small "edge" of alertness being held to the side; that small edge kicks in, though, if any anomalies appear---evidence of traffic problems coming up. At that point, the mind assesses the problem as best it can and makes a decision that is intended to be constructive and may indeed be creative. The illusion of all-safe gives way to the problem-solving mode. So too, many illusions in life may work fine but others are becoming obsolete or counter-productive in light of accelerating social, technical, and other changes in the world at present.

Questioning the hypnotic powers of illusion is necessary if we are to adapt effectively to changing times. There is a tendency of mind to lapse into an inertia-based tendency to just let things go, let the traditional or habitual way continue; this tendency often overshoots the mark, taking the situation into the danger zone, well past when significant changes needed to be made. The concept of illusion may be useful in shortening that transition time between anticipating a problem and reacting intelligently---or even "pro-actively" (i.e., not waiting for the "problem" to actually happen).

Related Phenomena

Illusion overlaps with other categories that may be less than factual. Poetry, metaphor, the arts, symbolic thinking, logical fallacies, bits of propaganda and misleading advertising, and significantly, the power of myth or religious belief, all are functions of mainly the non-rational brain, sometimes assisted by the language-ing parts of the mind. This is a very broad and complex realm that includes both psychosis and inspirational genius. The goal is to develop both rational and non-rational mind so as to better utilize the potentials inherent in both cerebral hemispheres, both sides of the brain, left and right.

To do this, some willingness to re-evaluate beliefs, thoughts, impressions, attitudes, assumptions, is necessary. This requires both sides to cooperate, to check things out, to run a possibility through "heart" and "mind." And to do this, one must wake up a bit, not allow oneself to be too easily caught up in whatever illusory system that seems to dominate in the moment.

Saying this more clearly: Don't believe everything you see, hear, touch, feel, or even think. Don't be too quick to think what you feel or feel what you believe. Disconnect your capacity for discriminating, doubting, re-evaluating from all these first impressions. The point of illusion is that you fool yourself in innumerable ways, and others fool you; the culture's traditions and "common sense" may be mistaken, limited, obsolete, and reflect a shallow understanding of the situations. Also, situations change, so what was true yesterday may not apply today.

Many Levels

Illusions operate at and among all levels of mind, and may indeed be an aspect of mind itself. Those levels include:
 - the bio-physical and somatic
 - the intra-psychic
 - inter-personal
 - family & small group
 - larger group, extended family  (face and name recognition)
 - organization, (face recognition but not always name recognition)
 - larger organization, community, identity but not always even face recognition)
 - sub-culture
 - culture and language; also, historical era.
 - whatever is experienced by the species as a whole, human, not extra-terrestrial, non-insect consciousness, etc.

One point to be emphasized here is that human beings are imagined to be inextricably embedded in social and cultural networks. A psychology that pretends that we can adequately understand an individual apart from this embeddedness is suffering from a 19th and early 20th century world-view illusion.

My Life Mission of Penetrating Illusion

In preparing for this talk, I realized that many of the papers on my website, especially those dealing with psychology, can be viewed as a way to re-think common illusions. In retrospect, the elucidation of illusions has been a theme in my life. Perhaps this was a subtle form of rebellion for my adolescent self---sensing that there was a great deal of hypocrisy or phoniness or just lack of clarity about what's what. Critiquing these with some civility but also directness has been a hobby, though I didn't realize this theme until very recently. I just thought I enjoyed thinking about stuff.

Some Common Illusions

Here are some of the more common illusions. If you need explanations, please email me:

1. There are illusions, but these are curious side shows, not an intrinsic part of everyday life. Therefore, it is not necessary that we attend to this dynamic.
    A. (These sub-points are often corollaries, variations or extensions of the numbered point.) What I perceive, feel, and what makes sense to me is clearly reality. Illusions are obvious.
          (Comment: I may not often comment, other than to say that (a) I don't agree with these (following) statements. Illusions are often not at all obvious!)

2. There are people who know, who are wiser and know how to deal with the mess we’re in.
   A. They know how to work out the ethical and political ambiguities such as
        – irradiation of foods... a matter of public acceptability rather than science
        – laws that address denial of addiction or illness that threaten society
           – related to laws about freedom to harm oneself and then expect society to pay for

    B. If “they” don’t fix things, they are blameworthy for not caring or trying hard enough. The idea that they really don’t know is near-inconceivable (although it is obvious)
    - Much in politics hinges on this illusion

3. We “have” a body, a mind, we are in control. We can will and coerce ourselves to work harder, not burn out, achieve more.
    A. Those who have not become winners deserve to be losers. If they wanted to, they could be winners to.
    B. It’s possible to be a winner and to be ethical.
    C. We also “have” property and we should be able to do what we want with it. Okay, slaves no longer can’t be called property. Women neither, not any more. But lots of stuff is still “mine” and our legal system supports this, so that means we don’t have to revisit this question. Whether or not something is moral is irrelevant; the only relevant question is whether or not it is legal. And whether my behavior can find the loopholes and manage to stay within the letter of the law.

4. Everyone is a cheater, so I might as well get what I can while I can. It’s dog-eat-dog world. Being independent is good. Being in any way independent is weak and bad. Being weak is itself not exactly wicked, but does hint at lack of moral fiber.

5. I don’t really need to reflect on my life. It’s pretty obvious.
    A. Those who think too much always tie their minds into knots. They muddle and interfere with the activities of the (good) decisive.
    B. Those who think too much are mentally masturbating. Nothing good comes of it. “Academicians,” college professors, intellectuals, are all really stupid. Street smarts is what counts.

6. There is no magic, no source of joy beyond oneself, no soul. Mind is a computer, a way to be clever in the aforementioned (4) “battle.”

7. There are answers. They’re in books, or experts know them. Some experts haven’t been studying the right books, so they don’t count. It’s good to know the right answers and stand firm in their defense.

8. Psychology is worthless, a way of making excuses for the weak, a way to mess with your mind. Their knowledge is false and worthy of being discounted.

9. Science is good, and what science has produced is not only impressive, but definitive. I may need a scientific type or talker to interpret it, though. Whether something can be measured is the only criteria worthy of attributing the name, reality. All else is illusion.
    A. That which goes beyond the criteria mentioned here—physical materialism—cannot claim the status of other than illusion.

10. That about wraps it up. I can’t think of any more, so there aren’t any more.

(The next 10 sources of illusion are listed on my website about childish illusion.)

(The next ten illusions feature illusions gained in adolescence, apart from what has been named.)

11. I know enough to get by. I don’t really need to learn more. Certainly I don’t need to study at anywhere as intensively as they make us do in school. All that’s phoney.

12. Communications. I pretty much mean what I say. If you are paying attention, you should understand. If you don’t, you aren’t paying attention, and are blameworthy. Or you’re stupid.

13. I’m clever in several ways, demonstrated to my satisfaction. Therefore I’m smart. The idea that I have a number of roles, talents, skill areas, or bodies of knowledge that are far less than adequate is beyond me, unbelievable. If were smart I can’t be dumb in any way.

14. I have achieved certain levels of rank and status, which prove that I’m competent. It is hard to imagine that my rank doesn’t mean that I have perhaps not acquired the necessary knowledge to do my job.

15. There is truth, it is discoverable. It’s just a matter of time.
     A. We know the truth, our people, our theologians, our authorities. Those who will not bow to the truth are simply rebellious, willful.
    B. Truth is the source of morality. Those who don’t buy this are, if not actually immoral themselves, then enabling others to be immoral by diluting the truth.

    16. My opinions are considered judgments, not mere matters of taste. Your expressions of preference need not be taken into serious consideration.

17. What is relevant, interesting, important, is objective, out-there-true for all people. It’s not merely an extension of my preference or taste.
    A. This is true because I can come up with reasons why it should be so, and this act of rationalization works to support my illusion that it is indeed so.
    B. If many people—at least the ones I know—agree with me, that makes it doubly so.
    C. If I can back up my preferences with reasons, that also supports me, even though others may think me simply biased or prejudiced.

18. Male and Female are pretty obvious, decreed by God, the way it is. Homosexuality is an abomination.
    A. Any lessening of the definition of what counts as masculinity or femininity is a form of cultural decadence. The roles are clear and fixed from time immemorial.
    19. Strength comes with muscle strength and size. Deviousness works, but it’s not as noble. Peacemaking and negotiations are maneuvers of those who are personally weak. Strength is good, weakness is bad. I know Jesus preached otherwise, but he meant something else.

20. Being optimistic is illusory. Being pessimistic is being realistic. Being cynical is even more realistic. (I don't agree with this and see my essay on Reasons to be Optimistic.

Adult Illusions

21. If you or your group knows about something that seems important and is unknown or unrecognized by a larger circle of professionals or people, then you are “in the know.” This sense can disguise the reality that there are yet many things that you don’t know, some of which are known by those who seem not to be “in the know.”

22. It’s good enough. It works. It has always been this way. It’s established. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make trouble.
    A. That many people are suffering within the status quo is not important—they’re on the edges of what’s happening. Majority rules.

    23. There is no discernable difference between the consequences of being clever, ruthless, and lucky—i.e. fame and wealth—and true wisdom. Both deserve respect. (However, if you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?)

    24. The reason for trouble is that there are trouble-makers, people undermining the system, moral decay, conspiracies, and if we can find those bad people and get rid of them, everything would be okay.

25. The answers could be simple and easy to understand if people wouldn’t be making it so complicated, serving their own nefarious purposes.
    A. I can’t understand someone saying: “Truth is simple: Things are complicated. Working out life is difficult.” I don’t like these answers so they must not be so.

    26. I read it in a book, saw it on the news, heard an editorial from a smart person. It must be so. A. (I know no tools to evaluate truth: They didn’t really teach me the component skills of critical thinking in school. But I graduated, so that should be a sign of my adequacy. I didn’t really need it, did I?)

27. If I really feel something deeply, intensely, that certainly makes it more true.

28. If it all makes sense, the parts come together and fit, so it must be so.

29. What I think is not illusion. Illusions are false, inherently. They are not facts. I think about facts, hard facts.
    A. I try to rid myself of illusions. It’s the same as thinking clearly.

30. Get serious. The difference between play and serious is clear. Play is frivolous. Competitive play is better than merely messing around.

For responses, email me at adam@blatner.com
Return to top