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Adam Blatner, M.D.

Posted 6/10/11. (This is a  a talk given on June 9, 2005, to the Senior University Georgetown, a lifelong learning program.)
   For more about illusions, see auxiliary webpage.   In 2013, another webpage on illusions as part of a series about
 Thinking About Thinking

Abstract in Program

Just as we are susceptible to being misled by optical and sensory illusions, so, too, we can be misled by psychological illusions. There are ways we can recognize different types of mental illusions and from this we can then make choices that counter their influence.


Preparing for this lecture has led me in some different directions: I was going to begin with a bunch of optical illusions, but I found that there are so very many of them, and they only point to all sorts of other illusions, that I shifted my focus back to the theme of psychological illusions. (See references at the end, and just google "optical illusions" and you'll find tens of thousands of websites!  Indeed, I came to realize that illusions pervade our lives. I used to think they were oddities, but now the dynamics of illusion---it seems to be this, but it really is that---operates in many contexts.
   -- optical illusions, auditory illusions, illusions of taste, smell, touch, balance, other perceptions
   -- stage magic and other illusions as tricks, for entertainment
   -- tricks for other activities, such as used by spiritualist mediums and other so-called psychics
   -- tricks played by the childish parts of one's mind on the more mature parts of the mind so that the person can retain a sense of coherence, self-esteem, and the like.
   -- tricks played by one person on another, manipulations, such as those mentioned by the psychiatrist Eric Berne in the mid-1960s best selling book, "Games People Play."
   -- roles people fall into in group dynamics, many of which are based on illusions
   -- social roles and norms, what is considered "attractive," "cool," "fashionable," "strong," "dominant," "authoritative," and so forth. Many status symbols and other behaviors are illusions of rank or prestige. Uniforms, hats, scepters, medals, flags, and so forth, all indicate types of status. Even using big words can be phony and impressive, as noted in the lyrics of the 2nd verse of "Supercalafragilisticexpialidocious"
    -- political propaganda, the sermons of televangelists, the blandishments of advertisers in all media, all prey on tendencies of the mind to flow along less-than-perfectly logical channels. They seem reasonable enough, but on closer inspection, there are a wide variety of logical flaws. Indeed, the study of "rhetoric" in ancient Greece dealt with the art of persuasion, and this art often included not just rational argument, but also appeals to illusions embedded in our thinking. Those same tricks are used today by the aforementioned fields and many others.
   -- cultural norms can be illusory and yet pervasive, and are the subject of my website about oppression....

The point is that many elements in our culture are symbols, they stand for something else, but they don't necessarily have to. Many of these elements also have emotional content, so that we feel more sympathy for, say, a "bunny" than for a "rabbit."  The field of semantics explores this way that words not only have matter-of-fact definitions, but also emotional coloring, connotations.
Related Phenomena
There is an unclear boundary---probably some overlap---between the way the term "illusion" has evolved and the way the term "myth" has evolved so that in some cases the terms are interchangeable. Recent research in cognitive psychology has brought to the surface scores of different ways the mind is inclined to drift into illusion.

Often what works for many situations or past situations becomes a habit of mind, but in new situations with new requirements, the old ways of thinking no longer fit. Books about creative thinking, critical thinking, good judgment, and the like often require a heightening of alertness to the many pitfalls involved in assessing a situation or making a decision. There may also be a blurring of the phenomena of illusion and the elements of groupthink, folly, popular fads, and so forth. Another technique is to slip from matter-of-fact into more poetic metaphors without noting the category difference. It can be done skilfully but what is at the base is the illusion of reasonable-ness.

Cut To the Chase

My talk today therefore will not be a discussion of the types of illusion. Oh, I may mention a few, but mainly I'm addressing the implications of shifting from a world in which it seemed that illusion was an occasional phenomenon to a post-modern, more sophisticated world that recognizes that much of our social relations and our own psychological functioning is based on illusion. How best to cope with that shift in awareness---that most of life tends towards illusion?

One common illusion is that the world today is not that different from the world fifty years ago when we were growing up, and in a few ways it may not be. But we've grown accustomed to many changes, though we haven't always recognized how much they require a truly different way to think about things. What I'm talking about is becoming aware of what it means to have moved beyond the modern world of the 20th century and into the post-modern era. This shift involves an accelerating rate of change in all areas. Along with change is an expansion of information, population, new fields of endeavor, games, inter-disciplinary ventures, the social implications of culture-mixing, and all manner of other things.

The good news is that there is an answer. The bad news is that it’s a knack that involves not just the rational mind—what you can learn in the sense of learn about—but also the non-rational mind—what you can learn in the sense of do, like swimming, riding a bike, hanging in there and working out an argument in a friendly fashion with a close other—and lots of folks don’t know how to do that.

I want to suggest that the awareness of the pervasiveness of illusion must be properly understood and then this understanding responded to by shifting your paradigm, your basic assumptions, indeed, your basic gut instincts—about what is going on and what you should do about it. The best metaphor I have to offer is that it’s time to learn to swim.

What I mean here is that when I grew up, truth was sort of like gravity. We didn’t know a lot of the formulas and stuff physics teaches, but we knew it was there, and we could tell the difference between standing and falling or tripping. And we might learn to leap and dance, but there was still gravity. Reassuring, it was—one of the first things babies learn to cope with, gravity.

But in a more complex world there is something called swimming, and whatever you do to relate to gravity works quite different from walking or dancing. There is no firm ground—if you let go of the side of the pool or move into water that’s deeper than your height. I want to suggest that there’s a mental attitude and activity that is the equivalent of swimming that can cope with the challenge posted by an awareness of the pervasiveness of illusion.

Swimming involves a host of physical maneuvers that are difficult to describe—it’s more learning by doing, coaching, getting the knack. There are also different learning styles, so the instructions that are useful for one person or most people may not apply to you or any particular person.

Dealing with the pervasive nature of illusion involves a learning-by-doing, too, so the best I can do in this talk is help you get oriented to the general themes. It need not be totally confusing, and there are some useful guidelines.

First, there’s a holding on more loosely to what you know. It’s not letting go, nor is it gripping tightly, but somewhere in between, like water is in-between the elusiveness of steam as water gas and ice as water-solid.

There are human tendencies to overdo things, to hold on too tightly, which leads to control-freak and freak-outs—because it’s too big to control, too many faceted by several orders of magnitude; but the alternative isn’t to let go and become a slacker, because that’s a cop-out. In the swimming metaphor it isn’t either trying to walk on water nor staying out of the water—it’s learning to swim.

In thinking, the truth is to let go of having to know a once-and-for-all truth, and working with an in-between category, which I’ll call “provisional model,” “working model,” hypothesis. It involves daring to think—pushing yourself to think—but also knowing that nothing you think will probably be the final conclusion. It partakes of the true wisdom of “become as little children” that Jesus spoke about in his parable-like teachings.

To become as a child, to entertain innocence, is not necessarily to be deeply ignorant. Rather, it’s to know there’s more yet to be learned. It’s to shun the arrogance of thinking you’ve come to a conclusion.

That indeed is a very fundamental illusion—that, first, there are final answers: and, second, you’ve become aware of what they are.

In light of the continuing progress of history in all fields, it is entirely likely that we’ll continue to make progress in all fields. In light of the depth of change of worldview occasioned by technical progress mixed with very basic shifts in world-view in the last century or so, it’s likely that we’ll continue to have more basic shifts in world-views!  Whoa! That means that whatever we know may be true, but at best it’s only partly true. The next world-view shift is likely to offer new perspectives that make much of what we think we know insufficient, only partly true. And some of what we discover will make some of what we thought we knew wrong, or maybe just irrelevant. Thus does history and technology evolve.

This proposition is hard to imagine if you don’t have the skills for changing, for imagination, for creative innovation—and those skills are famously not taught in our present dominant school programs. So by orienting you to these skills, you can tell your kids and grandkids, the kids you mentor, nephews and nieces.

The first skill is that of learning to be creative, and that skill includes a willingness to do two things we were taught not to do: Don’t question authority, and don’t challenge what’s been created by those who have gone before. But these unspoken rules are deeply misleading. They’re part of the illusion-filled background.

To innovate, to be creative—which is the only way to live in a postmodern era—requires a fine balance of respect for what has gone before—because you build on that platform, you stand on the shoulders of giants—a metaphor attributed to Isaac Newton, but having a deeper provenance.

The danger is to slacken your mind, lazily, and rely on what has been created by others. This is a cop out. The challenge is to ready yourself to re-evaluate the situation.

Alerting to Illusions Analogy to Driving a Car

Now some perspective. Most of our lives, most of the time, we don’t have to re-think every situation anew. A fair amount of habit, routine, and trust makes civilization possible. But as you drive your car down the freeway, and as you go along with what seems to be normal traffic, you can follow routines and expectations. Ideally, you keep a small edge of your mind—small but essential—on the lookout for anomalies. Traffic slowing, blinking lights, unusual signs, smoke billowing ahead, and with such cues, you assess and consider alternative actions. Your mind kicks into gear, and you think—and you think creatively! — unless you’re text-messaging, in which case you plow into the stopped car in front of you.

The key is that edge of your mind, that alert part that can amplify its control from 2% to 99% in a second. Wake up, danger. Nor need it be this urgent. Slowly, it dawns on you that x activity isn’t working any longer. It used to satisfy, but been there done that is happening; or the group has changed, or the mission has changed, or the technology, or other roles take precedence—life is changing! All I’m saying is that in the post-modern era the rate of change on average is just a bit more than what it used to be—but a crucial bit more, enough to require us to re-think the way we think, to re-value the place of creativity in our lives.

Illusion and Truth

The problem of illusion is also the problem of truth. When I grew up there were a whole bunch of relatively unquestioned truths. As Yul Brinner sings in his soliloquy song, “Is a Puzzlement,” in the 1950s Broadway play and then movie, The King and I: "When I was young, what was so was so."

But in the postmodern world, we have suffered from a whole slew of changes:
   - Heroes are revealed as having feet of clay.
   -  Doctrines with fine-sounding virtues are taken to unpleasant extremes.  I hear T.S. Eliot’s 1917 poem, The Love Song of J. Arthur Prufrock, and the verse, “That is not what I meant at all.”
   - Common prejudices that seemed like social norms being contested on all sides, and the arguments they bring up make sense.
   - Major socio-political changes, where the good guys are not always good and the bad guys have some good points—very confusing.
       ...And so forth.

There is the common option of copping out, dropping out, becoming increasingly distracted by television, and more recently, video games. Millions are doing this instead of getting back into the game and helping this become a better world. I personally don’t approve of this.

There’s a middle ground of moderate engagement. And a stance of willingness to think, to re-evaluate, to re-consider. That is itself on the edge of overwhelming, but part of that stress involves not having many skills or much validation for using them.

What this lecture is about is to suggest the good news—there are such skills, and we want to support you and help you support each other in using them. These are the skills of innovation, creativity, and a bit of science and philosophy and psychology—especially regarding this very simple idea:

The human mind works well enough in gentle situations so that it gets by. In novel situations, or with strange variations—situations that are happening more often in the postmodern world—it tends to get caught up in illusions!  Know this is likely to happen.

It’s no worse than knowing in the contemporary computer scene that you need to use hygiene with your computers, anti-viruses, programs like crap cleaner, defragmenters, and so forth. You need to back up, you need to know there are threats out there. You don’t need to know the details of every threat, but just that some general rules apply.

(It’s something like knowing about food preparation and storage hygiene, isn’t it?—as we heard this last Monday!)

So I’m saying the same thing: Politicians are fooling you, news-magazines, television programs, advertisers, and so forth. Your mind constantly fools itself. I could give three lectures or thirty on the different ways the mind does this. I’ll post this on my webpage and give you links.

The word “rhetoric” refers to the art of persuasion, and it includes giving good arguments, but since the goal was persuasion rather than truth, it also offers a bunch of techniques that are a bit deceptive. They are logical fallacies. These tools are used by spin doctors and propagandists and advertisers all the time. Rhetoric was a mainstream art learned by the ancient Greeks and Romans, so this art of persuasion and also deception has been around for a long time.

You can fool yourself, others can fool you, words can fool you. When I grew up, we generally thought words meant what they meant. Then I came upon the writings of S. I. Hyakawa, especially his book, Language in Thought and Action. It was about semantics—which is simply the recognition that words don’t mean their definition, they mean what they are associated with emotionally. Cute, the American Flag, Mister President, Truth, God, and on and on,---- so many words mean very different things to different people. Wow, this really gave my adolescence a boost. I was a quiet rebel in my own way—I enjoyed trying to think out discrepancies I saw all around me. Indeed, as I thought about it recently, my entire career has had this theme—questioning stuff that on closer inspection turns out to be an illusion. It’s the implicit background theme in many of the papers on my website.

I was going to try to present you with how you fool yourself, what the common illusions are, but I quickly became aware that listing and explaining them could take an unknown—but a lot—number of hours or pages. I’d get something juicy and write a paragraph or two and then another one or two would occur to me and it didn’t stop. Yikes.

So just this week I cut to the chase, as I’m doing, and asked myself, if so—that illusions are pervasive—then what?

Knowing they are around, you watch for them. You watch for which ones are likely to trip you up. Not all illusions are problematic.

Good Illusions

I need to take a moment to note this. Many illusions work just fine, they add juice and spice and flavor to life and we should use the mind in this way.

In the mid-20th century, for a while there, I as a psychiatrist was caught up in the glamour of taking down illusions, and someday, when we’re free of illusion, we’ll be truly free. But I came to see this differently. No illusion is too dry. It’s Waiting for Godot. The problem wasn’t illusion per se, but illusions that don’t work in the present situation—don’t get mentally lazy and rely on them. To be a critical thinker one need not avoid falling in love, bonding with your babies or pets, enjoying sentimental theatre or movies. You bring critical thinking to problems when they become problems, not to everything.

We found this out about germs, too. In the early 20th century being clean was good, being germ-free was better, and then we discovered that germs are really important to maintain health. 95% of germs are not only harmless, but they fill in the spaces that don’t let the harmful ones get in. And they keep the immune system in tone. You want germs a bit. So there’s a balance.

The same for illusions. The game is to notice when a thought, a belief, a perception, becomes a problem. It involves the art of re-thinking, re-evaluating, changing your mind.

The idea that you should be right to begin with and then hold your ground, have the courage of your convictions—well, there are a few situations where that works, but as a cliche it tends to be used to justify mere bull-headed stubborn-ness.

The Skills of Coping With Illusions

Know there are illusions. Know they’re tricky. What seems true is not always true.

Don’t always believe everything you feel. Don’t feel everything you think. Don’t think everything you believe. Disconnect these linkages and check them out. Sometimes—frequently, in fact—there are errors in basic assumption if not the logic involved. This is part of critical thinking.

Learn more and more—you could spend your life learning more—about all the ways we fool each other and ourselves—in politics, religion, propaganda, advertising, social traditions, family dysfunction, personal neuroses...

Encourage your kids and grandkids to learn about penetrating illusion—chances are, the idea is new to them and they haven’t ever had the seed planted.

Talk with a few others about what you love and hate, believe and disbelieve—and consider that if on occasion they disagree with you, well, maybe they’ve got a point. Maybe even they’re right and you’re wrong!

Don’t get all prideful about being right. Know that you will be viewed as wrong for sure by future generations. You have a right to be wrong, you don’t know the half of it. You must forgive yourself and move on. No big deal. Your parents were wrong some of the time about applying the best they knew in their world; you were mistaken about your child-rearing thirty years or so ago; and your great grandkids will be wrong when it’s their turn to raise their kids, because that’s how history unfolds. Dare to be gently amused by it all.

But neither use this as an excuse to retreat into cynicism. Knowing your partly wrong is no justification for quitting the game. Play it the best you can. Recognize that this is what courage is about. Appreciate yourself and each other for bringing your open-minded creativity to the process. It’s a game of exploration. What might be a better way to live our lives?

In the coming semester, Late September through early November, I’ll be talking about this theme from another angle: How can we be upbeat in a time of many problems? One way is by expanding our consciousness, and there are many avenues to this. The series will be titled, “What We May Yet Become: Contemporary Visionaries” and I’ll talk about a number of people operating now and in the last century who dared to envision a more positive future.



Brafman, Ori & Brafman, Rom. (2008). Sway: the irresistible pull of irrational behavior. New York: Doubleday.

Chabris, Christopher & Simons, Daniel. (2010). The invisible gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us. New York: Crown.

Hallinan, Joseph T. (2009). Why we make mistakes. New York: Broadway Books.

Kaplan, Michael & Kaplan, Ellen. (2009). Bozo sapiens: why to err is human. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Kida, Thomas.  Don’t believe everything you think: the six basic mistakes we make in thinking. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 2006.

LeGault, Michael R. (2006). Think! Why crucial decisions can’t be made in the blink of an eye. New York: Threshold.

Lehrer, Jonah. (2009). How we decide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Marcus, Gary. (2008). Kluge: The haphazard construction of the human mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tavris, Carol & Aronson, Elliot. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Van Hecke, Madeleine L. (  ). Blind spots; why smart people do dumb things. Amherst, NY Prometheus Books

Optical Illusions

Block, Richard & Yuker, Harold. (1992). Can you believe your eyes? New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Ernst, Bruno. (1992). Optical illusions. Germany: Taschen. (Translated into English by Karen Williams in London.)

Ninio, Jacques. (2001). The science of illusions (translated from the French edition in 1998 by Franklin Philiop with the help of the French Ministry of Culture).  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Nurosi, Aki. (2004). Artful illusions: designs to fool your eyes. New York: Sterling Publishing.

Paraquin, Charles H. (1977). The world’s best optical illusions. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Shepard, Roger N. (1990). Mind sights: original visual illusions with a commentary. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co.
Unruh, J. Timothy. (2001). Impossible objects: amazing optical illusions to confound and astound. New York: Sterling Publications

and:  http://www.newscientist.com/special/best-new-visual-illusions-2010

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