The Soul IllusionPosted By William Dubin, Ph.D. on February 16, 2016 at 11:58am | General
I think my quarry is illusion. I war against magic.
I believe that, though illusion often cheers and comforts,
it ultimately and invariably weakens and constricts the spirit.
— Irvin Yalom
Some otherwise competent individuals repeatedly and knowingly act counter to their own interests. They are not intending to hurt themselves; they are taken in by an illusion. The Soul Illusion results from the presumed, but bogus, premise of perception, namely that we see the world as it really is. In fact, what we see is a creation of our nervous system.
To appreciate the source of your knowledge about the world outside of you, consider the familiar question: When a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, is there a sound?
When the tree falls, it produces a series of pressure waves in the surrounding air. The ear drum converts these waves into a mechanical signal which is transmitted by 3 small bones to the fluid filled cochlea – the spiral bony canal of the inner ear. Hair cells of the cochlea are the actual receptors. Each is tuned to a particular frequency of the fluid waves. Hair cell vibrations are converted to electrical impulses, and transmitted along the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex where intensity and frequency of the vibrations are mapped. Neither pressure waves, physical movements of body parts [bones, hair], nor electrical signals are sound. Sound is an experience that is created by, and exists only in, the mind of the perceiver.
So, if there is no one around to hear it, a tree falling in the forest produces no sound — only pressure waves in the surrounding air.
Perception differs qualitatively from the physical properties of the stimulus. The nervous system extracts only certain information from the natural world. We perceive fluctuations of air pressure not as pressure waves but as sounds that we hear. We perceive electromagnetic waves of different frequency as colors that we see. We perceive chemical compounds dissolved in air or water as specific smells or tastes.
In the words of neurologist Sir John Eccles: “I want you to realize that there exists no color in the natural world, and no sound – nothing of this kind; no textures, no patterns, no beauty, no scent.” Sounds, colors, and patterns appear to have an independent reality, yet are, in fact, constructed by, and only exist, within an individual’s nervous system. All of our experience is our nervous systems’s interpretation of the input it receives.
The Confabulation of Consciousness
Your nervous systems processes a huge amount of data. Consciousness appears to be a by-product of all this processing, and it creates a narrative to make sense of the data. There are many different naratives that can be constructed to account for the events that happen. The way you would write your autobiography is just one way the story can be told; your version is the one told from your particular perspective. Describing the same events from a different perspective would yield a different story. No single perspective provides the valid and complete depiction of the events that happen. Although, to function effectively in the real world you have to assume that your current perspective accurately reflects objective reality.
The Soul Illusion is the consequence of failing to appreciate the difference between objective reality and our subjective perceptions and appraisals. In eastern philosophy we are viewed as trapped in “Maya.” The entrapment results from the tacit, but false, premise of perception: We perceive the world as it really is, and so we will always perceive things as we do now. Remember: Perception is the brain’s interpret ion of sensory data, and exists only within the perceiver. Indeed, all subjective experience is a creative construction of a nervous system with a particular learning history and point of view.
The truth that can make you free
The understanding that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are mental processes that your nervous system composed from limited sensory data, and are not complete and accurate depictions of objective reality, is called Meta-Cognitive Awareness.
By viewing your emotional reactions as the responses of a creature whose perception is biased by its current beliefs and emotional state, you can escape the illusions that have, in the past, taken you in. An easy way to access this perspective is to view another person’s state-dependent distortions from your perspective as the dispassionate observer:
The sincere vows of a problem drinker
Consider the problem drinker who recognizes the harm his drinking is having and decides to reduce his alcohol consumption. After many failures to adhere to his decision, he vows to quit drinking completely. Surprisingly, despite this difficult history the self-sabotaging decision of having a drink at some particular occassion will seem sensible at the time. This pattern of sincere vows followed by thoughtless violations of the vow, followed by contrition, and an even more sincere vow is common accross all Incentive Use Disorders.
The trance formations of a problem drinker:
Ernest Hasselbring is a bright, successful lawyer who has a lot going for him, but is in danger of sacrificing everything that is meaningful to him for his drinking problem. To summarize and characterize his history: Before the lapse Hasselbring appraises its wisdom differently than he will later in retrospect: He really meant it when he made his solemn vow to never have another drink (after his second DUI). Nevertheless, a few weeks later when he was no longer in the contrite state evoked by the DUI and wanted to have some fun (“for a change”), he appraised his options differently than the fellow who vowed to quit drinking. He made his vow of abstinence in one motivational state, and broke it in another. Needless to say, Hasselbring will once again discover that violating his vow was a mistake, an insight which will motivate an even stronger vow to quit drinking “and this time I really mean it.” He really will mean it. But naturally everything will look different when he encounters the next high-risk situation and the motivation to adhere to his vow of abstinence is far away.
When Hasselbring vows to quit drinking his motivation is in accord with his commitment. At that moment he is not lying to himself, and so he assumes that his current appraisal of the costs and benefits of drinking is permanent. Hasselbring’s challenge is to adhere to the commitment he makes now even when he is in a motivational state that elicits a different appraisal of the costs and benefits of drinking.
We are biological creatures whose perception is continually biased by our current psychological state—perception is state-dependent. Just before he broke his vow of abstinence Hasselbring was blind to the consequences that many painful lessons tried to teach him were sure to follow. Likewise, when he looked back on that same drink he could not believe that he could be so foolish as to have a drink considering his history . . . and then when he assumed that he finally learned his lesson and vowed to never drink again, he was certain that hew would adhere to it.
No matter how many times he repeats his sequence of vows and relapse, he fails to realize that his subjective reality will be different the next time he is in a high-risk situation. The motivations and perceptions available to him when he makes the commitment will not be available to him when he is in a high-risk situation. During the crises everything will look different. The distortions will always be invisible to him, because subjective reality itself is state-dependent.
Hasselbring is not alone. All problem drinkers appraise the wisdom of a first drink after a period of sobriety differently before it happens than in retrospect. This perverse pattern illustrates two corollaries of the Soul Illusion. The Illusion of Sate Permanence is illustrated by the fact that he has made this same mistake many times and each time he believes he will always appraise alcohol this way and so will never make this mistake again. The Illusion of Certainty is illustrated by his willingness to make the vow with little attention to how he will get himself to adhere to it, because he is certain that he has really learned the lesson this time and so will require no effort to get himself to act in accord with it.
De-Reification and the Soul Illusion
Reification refers to treating an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence. As used here, Reification refers to treating your beliefs as if they existed outside of you as part of the objective world, and so must be taken seriously.
Some abstractions are pathogenic and some are helpful. Reification of beliefs and perspectives that enhance your ability to follow your path of greatest advantage is a powerful tool for self-growth. However, De-Reifying pathogenic beliefs and perspectives can produce a big payoff for a modest effort.
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Posted by William Dubin, Ph.D.
Bill received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has dedicated his career to the study of mood and addictive disorders and how to escape them.