February 8, 2023

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Sprachlupe Review of the Mind Stirrer Illusion

Daniel Goldstein / Professor Basel explains how the brain can free itself from the need for explanations with false ideas about the world.

Convictions, wherever you look or hear: the media constantly report that this or that person is “convinced” of something. Journalists’ pangs of conscience, because beliefs cannot be verified, are dealt with by saying “convinced” or looking for another variation of “say”. A person who says something without showing conviction hardly gets any attention. Appearing confident would conducive to social standing, and thus evolution may have been favourable: this is one of several explanations offered by a new book for why honesty is not the only and not always the most important reason when beliefs change in minds.

“The Illusion of the Mind” is the name of the book by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Philipp Stierzer, professor at the University of Basel; The subtitle warns: “Why should we not be so convinced of our convictions” (Olstein). The author does not intend the normative beliefs that relate to the target country. He’s only interested in the actual conditions and how our brain puts them together – from everyday things like the motion of a tennis ball to devastating things like the question of whether any forces gave us Covid. It does not matter whether these thoughts are expressed as beliefs, if they exist, or whether they remain in the mind.

The brain as a “prediction machine”

Sterzer uses a model of the brain as a well-established “predictive engine” in psychological research under the name of predictive processing, but it is not undisputed. In accordance with this, sensory impressions are constantly compared with expectations generated by life experience, more precisely from the “internal model”, which consists of beliefs about the nature of the world. Research in this area works with experiments, such as that of optical illusions, and with comparison between “normal” behavior and psychopathic behavior. “Normal” is in quotes, because there are smooth transitions.

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In his special field of schizophrenia, Sherzer found that the weighting between new sensory impressions and expectations derived from beliefs was altered in sufferers. It goes both ways, but I’m happy to refer to the book for complex distinctions. At this point, linguistic accuracy comes to mind: Sterzer speaks of the “accuracy” of perceptions or expectations, but by that he does not explicitly mean their conformity to reality, but rather the effect they unfold on the brain. So I think “certainty” would be more appropriate. Overall, the book describes the hypothesized processes in the brain and their likely evolutionary progression in an easy-to-understand manner, with clear examples. The author explains or paraphrases technical terms, some of which are in a glossary.

Not rational, but practical

If impressions and expectations differ, it would be reasonable to investigate why – but there is often a lack of desire, time and information. In the dark forest, for example, it may be better for survival and reproduction to suspect and avoid a rare venomous snake in a branch than to improve one’s worldview through close examination. It may be more economical to give more weight to those impressions that affirm the worldview than to tinker with those that challenge it. Just: According to Sterzer, beliefs should not be as “fixed” as they are according to the dictionary, otherwise you lose touch with reality and become delusional.

Following a colleague’s motto, “Evolutionary selection is not interested in the truth,” the author examines a number of other mechanisms of “epistemological irrationality,” that is, the irrational search for knowledge. Something like this: a vague explanation is better than no explanation at all. All of this is part of normalcy for Sterzer, but it does not mean that one is simply at the mercy of (one’s own or others’) irrationality. He advocates a “rational approach to irrationality”: we must allow our convictions to be shaken and seek dialogue with people who seem “crazy” to us.

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Hypotheses, not rules

In the end, to the professor, all beliefs are just hypotheses, and should be treated as such, following the example of good science. Improving your “tolerance to uncertainty” would be useful here, for example in the event of a pandemic, in order to live with the fact that not all questions will find an answer right away. In a conclusion about Covid, he acknowledged that some “scientists” may have contributed to the hostilities with normative beliefs, when metadata was only expected of them. The author recognizes that this distinction “is a very good one, and can sometimes be determined only by choice of words.” His warning could also apply to those working in the media if they publish their own “convictions” or those of others.

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