Try this. Take a random person and put them in a room with some buttons to push. Then tell them that if they do something specific—some undefined something that they have to figure out—a light will flash on indicating that they’ve won a point. Then tell them to see how many points they can earn within a thirty-minute period.
When psychologists have done this, what happens is what you might expect. People sit down and start mashing buttons at random until eventually the light comes on to tell them they got a point. Logically, they then try repeating whatever they were doing to get more points. Except now the light’s not coming on. So they start experimenting with more complicated sequences—press this button three times, then this button once, then wait five seconds, and—ding! Another point. But eventually that stops working. Perhaps it doesn’t have to do with buttons at all, they think. Perhaps it has to do with how I’m sitting. Or what I’m touching. Maybe it has to do with my feet. Ding! Another point. Yeah, maybe it’s my feet and then I press another button. Ding!
Generally, within ten to fifteen minutes each person has figured out the specific sequence of behaviors required to net more points. It’s usually something weird like standing on one foot or memorizing a long sequence of buttons pressed in a specific amount of time while facing a certain direction.
But here’s the funny part: the points really are random. There’s no sequence; there’s no pattern. Just a light that keeps coming on with a ding, and people doing cartwheels thinking that what they’re doing is giving them points.
Sadism aside, the point of the experiment is to show how quickly the human mind is capable of coming up with and believing in a bunch of bullshit that isn’t real. And it turns out, we’re all really good at it. Every person leaves that room convinced that he or she nailed the experiment and won the game. They all believe that they discovered the “perfect” sequence of buttons that earned them their points. But the methods they come up with are as unique as the individuals themselves. One man came up with a long sequence of button-pushing that made no sense to anyone but himself. One girl came to believe that she had to tap the ceiling a certain number of times to get points. When she left the room she was exhausted from jumping up and down.
Our brains are meaning machines. What we understand as “meaning” is generated by the associations our brain makes between two or more experiences. We press a button, then we see a light go on; we assume the button caused the light to go on. This, at its core, is the basis of meaning. Button, light; light, button. We see a chair. We note that it’s gray. Our brain then draws the association between the color (gray) and the object (chair) and forms meaning: “The chair is gray.”
Our minds are constantly whirring, generating more and more associations to help us understand and control the environment around us. Everything about our experiences, both external and internal, generates new associations and connections within our minds. Everything from the words on this page, to the grammatical concepts you use to decipher them, to the dirty thoughts your mind wanders into when my writing becomes boring or repetitive—each of these thoughts, impulses, and perceptions is composed of thousands upon thousands of neural connections, firing in conjunction, alighting your mind in a blaze of knowledge and understanding.
But there are two problems. First, the brain is imperfect. We mistake things we see and hear. We forget things or misinterpret events quite easily.
Second, once we create meaning for ourselves, our brains are designed to hold on to that meaning. We are biased toward the meaning our mind has made, and we don’t want to let go of it. Even if we see evidence that contradicts the meaning we created, we often ignore it and keep on believing anyway.
The comedian Emo Philips once said, “I used to think the human brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.” The unfortunate fact is, most of what we come to “know” and believe is the product of the innate inaccuracies and biases present in our brains. Many or even most of our values are products of events that are not representative of the world at large, or are the result of a totally misconceived past.
The result of all this? Most of our beliefs are wrong. Or, to be more exact, all beliefs are wrong—some are just less wrong than others. The human mind is a jumble of inaccuracy. And while this may make you uncomfortable, it’s an incredibly important concept to accept, as we’ll see.