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The Soul Illusion

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. And, as is the case with optical illusions, experience does not prevent them from being taken in again and again.

The soul illusion is a critical element of mood disorders (depression, anger, and anxiety) and incentive use disorders [chemical dependence, obesity, compulsive gambling, gaming, sex/pornography, etc.].

But this time I really mean it

After Hasselbring’s second DUI he regretfully reviews how his drinking has harmed his family.  He really means it at the moment when he makes his solemn vow to never have another drink.  On a Friday night some weeks later he is angry at his wife and wants to have some fun for a change.  Now he is a different Hasselbring than the fellow who vowed to quit drinking. The contrite state following the DUI elicits a subjective reality that is different from the positive anticipatory state just before the next relapse; what seems sensible from one perspective seems ridiculous from the other. He makes his vow of abstinence when in one state, and breaks it when in another. Needless to say, Hasselbring will discover that dishonoring his vow is a mistake, which will motivate him to make an even stronger vow to quit drinking “and this time I really mean it.”  Naturally, everything will look different when he next encounters a high-risk situation and his good intentions and cognitive resources are far away.

Perceptual Bias and Will

The Rodney Dangerfield of philosophical questions: When a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, is there a sound? It gets no respect, because it seems to be one of those pointless questions that has no answer. But there is an answer - an answer with profound spiritual and practical implications. The answer is: There is no 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. The experience of sound exists only in the mind of the perceiver.

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 the mind. All our experience of the natural world is our mind's interpretation of the input it receives.

Objective Reality & Subjective Experience

Subjective reality is not the same as objective reality, although to function in the real world we must assume it is.  The soul illusion is the consequence of failing to appreciate the difference.  In eastern philosophy we are viewed as trapped in "Maya.”  The entrapment comes from accepting the tacit premise of subjective experience, namely that we perceive the world as it really is.  In fact, our experience is a creative construction produced by the biological creatures we inhabit.

We perceive everything through state-dependent lenses.  The same event will look different when we view it from different perspectives.  When Hasselbring  is looking forward to his first drink after several months of sobriety, he is blind to the consequences he knows will follow.  Likewise, when he looks back on that same drink he cannot believe he could be so foolish to allow the relapse to occur. . . and then when he considers how to accomplish this obviously difficult task, he will be blind to the true nature of his challenge and what it really takes to prevent relapse.

No matter how many times he repeats this sequence he never seems to learn. In real time he does not appreciate what will be all too obvious to him in hindsight. The distortions are always invisible to him, because his perceptual system itself is subject to the state-dependent bias. He will continually be taken in by this soul illusion until he rises to another level of awareness. Escape from the soul illusion emerges through Meta-Cognitive Awareness.


The states of mind that motivate self destructive behavior are subjective and temporary, but their consequences play out in the objective world, and so are irreversible.