“You may think you understand the difference between seeing something and imagining it. When you see something, it’s really there; when you imagine it, you make it up. That feels very different.
The problem is that when researchers ask people to imagine something, like a tomato, and then give some of them a just barely visible image of a tomato, they find that the process of imagining it is hard to totally separate from the process of seeing it. In fact, they use a lot of the same brain areas.
And when you stop to think about it, that makes some sense. Your brain is locked in the pitch-black bony vault of your skull, trying to use scraps of information to piece together the world. Even when it’s seeing, it’s partly constructing what’s out there based on experience. “It turns out, reality and imagination are completely intermixed in our brain,” Nadine Dijkstra writes in Nautilus, “which means that the separation between our inner world and the outside world is not as clear as we might like to think.”
Bravo David Brooks. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Many of the top commenters do not see any relevance between this column and the problems we face today. Brooks lets his readers connect the dots, and some of them can not. I am currently reading, “Inside the Third Reich” by Albert Speer, a famous member of Hitler’s inner group. Still in the beginning of this biography, the connections between Hitler, Trump, and the essay by Brooks are apparent. People who are depressed and scared are easily manipulated by someone who sees their fears and wants to turn them against some enemy or enemies, to relieve them of their suffering. The complexity of the human mind, which naturally mixes facts with fantasy, is fertile for such charlatans.
Here are two of my favorite comments.
Genuinely surprised to see so many people comment that this is an indulgent or throwaway topic. My first thought after catching the column’s drift was—exactly! This is the science that explains why we’re so polarized as a country, why it feels as if people are living in side-by-side realities. Fear is the emotional basis for many of our “rational” stances and decisions—for white Trump supporters, the fear of losing power and being “replaced.” This science is a mechanism by which we could admit when we’re wrong and start to come out of delusions—and that reconciliation is what has to happen for democracy to continue here (if you’re in doubt, read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson). Just because it isn’t likely that Americans will start to learn about this science and apply it to themselves doesn’t mean it isn’t hugely relevant.
I appreciate Brooks’ sketch of open questions and debates in cognitive neuroscience and in theory of mind. It points toward the possibility of a radical, experiential shift in understanding the self. Buddhist teaching grounded in mediation and articulated in Madhyamaka philosophy has a lot to say about the un-findability of the conventional self. My favorite short summary comes from Kalu Rinpoche: “You live in a world of illusion. There is a reality. You are that reality. When you realize this, you realize you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.”