The Soul Illusion

We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us

 —  Rabindranath Tagore

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 illusion results from the presumed, but bogus, premise of perception, namely that we see the world as it really is. In fact, we see the world through state-dependent filters — that is, our perception is distorted by our current emotional state; different emotional states produce different distortions.

Consider the problem drinker, Ernest Hasselbring, who has decided to stop drinking and has been sober for 3 weeks. It is Friday afternoon and he would like a beer, but he remembers his pattern of relapse. Before the first beer it always seemed like a good idea; the next day it always seemed like a bad idea. In either case he assumed that his current appraisal was valid, and that he would always feel this way. [Surprising, since he has experienced several painful relapses that began with the perception that drinking the first beer would be a good idea]. As is the case with optical illusions, learning does not prevent him from being taken in again and again.

Everyone makes mistakes — they are an inevitable part of learning and growth. But when a person makes the same mistake again and again — without learning anything — a change of perspective is in order. Incentive Use Disorders, are hard to change because the self-sabotaging decisions seem sensible at the time.


Before the lapse Hasselbring appraises it 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.

The Nature of Experiential Phenomena

To understand the nature of H's challenge, consider that classic question: When a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, is there a sound? It seems to be one of those pointless philosophical questions. But it is not that type of question; there is an answer, and it has profound 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. Sound is an experience that is created by, and 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, constructions of our nervous systems.

Objective Reality & Subjective Experience

Subjective reality is not the same as objective reality, although to function effectively in the real world we must assume that we are perceiving things accurately.  The Soul Illusion is the consequence of failing to appreciate the difference between objective reality and subjective experience.  In eastern philosophy we are viewed as trapped in "Maya.”  The entrapment results from the tacit premise of perception: My perceptions and appraisals are valid.

In fact, 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.

Consider how the Soul Illusion applies to your current situation: It suggests that you are likely to underestimate the risk of relapse and to expect that the challenge ahead is less demanding than it actually is, because you assume the "seeing is believing" premise. For example, 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.

The psychological states that motivate self destructive behavior are subjective and temporary, but the actions they evoke play out in the objective world, and so cannot be undone. Following your path of greatest advantage requires that you do the right thing even in situations that would motivate you to defect.

But what is the "right thing?" One part of you wants to act in accord with your interests and principles, while another part of you wants the immediate pleasure or relief of using the incentive. Which is the real you? Is there a real you? To answer these questions, we need to consider the entity who makes the commitments and the entity who must adhere to them.

Two Minds > >
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