Traps of the Mind (Part 1)

by Mario Sikora

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman (American theoretical physicist, 1918-1988)

We like to think we see the world clearly, that our perceptions are reliable, that our thinking is logical.

When we take a moment to step back and look at ourselves, however, we realize that this is not always the case. In fact, we often see the world through a variety of filters, our perceptions can be unreliable, and our thinking can be logically flawed.

This is not a new observation, of course; many ancient wisdom traditions are rooted in the idea that we are hindered by illusions and must learn to see clearly in order to become enlightened. The modern scientific literature on the inaccuracy and dysfunction of the brain is vast, and a list of useful books on the topic appears at the end of this post.

In the last post, “Thinking Like a Leader,” I wrote about why effective thinking was important. In this and future posts, I’ll discuss how some of the structures and processes of the brain can work to fool us. Then subsequent blogs will discuss tools for improving rigor, as well has how to cultivate the curiosity and creativity I wrote about previously.

In order to understand how our brains fools us, we have to understand one fundamental fact about the evolution of the brain: the brain evolved to help us survive, not to help us accurately comprehend the world around us. For the latter, we need help and future articles will focus on the tools that help us see the world clearly.

Those familiar with the science of biological evolution may have heard statements such as “evolution only cares about survival and reproduction.” This statement is only partially correct, but its implications usually do not fully register on people. This is a shame, because the implications are profound. (If anyone really wants to understand the nuances of the human psyche, they have to understand the science of evolution, and a short list of good introductory books is listed at the end.)

Before I talk about the implications, however, let me clarify what is meant by the statement.

Evolution by random mutation and natural selection is a blind, unintelligent, and indifferent process. It doesn’t “care” about anything because there is no intelligence or consciousness involved in the process to care. Evolution is also purposeless and without intention. Anthropomorphized evolution is a convenient shorthand, however, and almost impossible to avoid but it is important to understand that evolution is not deliberately working toward an end result. It progresses through a simple, blind algorithm.