Brains Lie

I’m heading into my last year of undergraduate degrees in psychology.* It’s what I’ve always wanted, if you can define ‘always’ as, ‘at least since I’ve had life plans’.

A sneaking suspicion that I wanted to know more about what made people tick in high school, a single psychopathology class during a visit to Stanford (I sat in the back, took six pages of notes, and promptly planned to major in the field), and one early-decision application to the school with my favorite psychology program, and here I am. So what have I learned? Can I guess your deepest motivations? Can I diagnose strangers at fifty paces? What have I gotten out of nine quarters of work and six figures of tuition?

A very valuable lesson, couched in reams of research papers and a small fortune in textbooks:

Brains lie.

They lie often and well and inconspicuously. They lie in beautiful, harmless ways, turning that pattern of dark and light into an optical illusion,giving color to numbers and taste to music, replaying that romantic memory in surround sound.

And they lie in dangerous, scary, unpredictable ways. Distorting memories where they matter most. Creating hallucinations, delusions, biases that lead us down evidentiary rabbit holes, confirm what we think we know, inflate our fears and skew our understanding of statistics. Anxiety. Impostor syndrome.

Brains tell the truth, sometimes, of course. But we know that. We’re much, much worse at remembering how often they don’t. We’re influenced by the order of choices presented to us, the race, age, weight, even accent of the person in front of us. There’s the foot-in-the-door effect, the door-in-the-face, wikipedia lists on lists of biases and loopholes and soft spots in our reasoning. And still we persist in this silly idea that we make independent choices, that no man is an island, but our brains are.

Brains lie.

*I got lucky and fulfilled two full psychology degrees; one in Psychology, one in Human Development & Psychological Services. The first is theory-based, the second geared towards practice. 


  1. Cuttlefish says

    My favorite bit about brains is… a lack of sensory nerves inside ’em. We can feel ourselves walk, but we can’t feel ourselves think. We are taught a vocabulary of inner life, by people who not only have no access to our thinking, but have precious little access to their own! Only some, but not all, of the outcomes of even our own brain processes are only partially, and never fully, available for us to observe. No wonder our common understanding of “mind” is so wildly at odds with our increasing scientific understanding.

    Brains don’t so much lie, as go about their business while our language makes up shit about what we think our brains are doing.

    I have no eyes to look behind
    And view my brain, much less my mind;
    I cannot know your thoughts, and you
    Are blind to what I’m thinking, too.
    These are the facts; we can’t deny
    We have no working “inner eye”
    Nor any form of ESP;
    Your thoughts cannot be seen by me.


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