Friday, April 6, 2007

Cognitive Illusions

Believe none that you hear and only half what you see - a phrase often preached throughout my childhood by my parents, yet seldom practiced. The underlying lesson nonetheless: beware gossip; your eyes can deceive you. Avoiding mouthy busybodies was the easy part; the concept of an elasticity to reality - in any present moment - was unsettling.

Your eyes can deceive you. Optical Illusions. Visually perceived images which are deceptive and misleading. Mirages. Phantasms misguiding the mind, often leading to a cognitive illusion.

In his book, Inevitable Illusions : How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini writes:
In the world of perception an [optical] illusion is to reality what a fallacy is to reasoning: an argument that is not true but has the appearance of being so. There is always some truth in any illusion; there is always some persuasion in a fallacy. Our business is to distinguish between angels and devils.

Wow. Ariel or Caliban, indeed. This Principal Research Associate for the Center for Cognitive Science at MIT is suddenly sounding like a teacher of acting. The statement referencing some 'truth in any illusion' is a koan for every actor. As artists in the theatre, one of our primary tasks is nothing less than verisimilitude - making out of a fallacy, some reason. A tricky business. It's easy to get in the way of this process, to block the path. In rehearsals we have to be keenly aware of our own perceptions, our own given circumstances, assumptions, intuitions, 'gut-feelings'. By clocking all of that maybe then we can better focus on the character's perception, reality.

Piattelli-Palmarini also writes:
It seems that all of us employ, and pursue to their end, some genuine and easy (as well as fallacious) shortcuts in our minds. Finding a shortcut is usually a good thing, but in these cases the shortcuts serve to render our thinking accessible to correction; they lead us to quite different destinations from that at which we intended to arrive.

If you think you're free of cognitive illusions, answer these questions:

1) Reno is east or west of Los Angeles? (West)

2) Rome is north or south of New York? (North)

3) When you fly south from Detroit, what is the first country you encounter? (Canada)

4) The arch in St. Louis is higher than taller or taller than higher or equal? (Equal)

Finally, this quote from Piattelli-Palmarini:
This study, as well as others, shows that the discrepancy between correctness of response and overconfidence increases as the respondent is more knowledgeable. Those who know less have a reduced level of overconfidence. On the other hand, when the answer is more elaborate, requires considerable reasoning, and is based on specialized knowledge, the level of accuracy increases, yes, but the level of overconfidence increases to a far greater degree.

To amuse and demonstrate the power of optical or cognitive illusions, watch this: