Why count on the brain for truth?

August 31, 2010
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Try this. Hold your thumb as far away as you can from your eye. That represents about one percent of your field of vision. When we see things, that’s about the extent of our focus. The rest of the picture is supplied by schema that we fill in from our memory.

Try this. Hold your thumb as far away as you can from your eye. That represents about one percent of your field of vision. When we see things, that’s about the extent of our focus. The rest of the picture is supplied by schema that we fill in from our memory.

I was discussing this yesterday with Rich Carlson, a psychology professor at Penn State. He said that we have limited capacity for new sensory input. And much like a computer on narrow-band, we store a lot of cached information to round out the meager flows we process. That’s why people often experience what they believe, instead of what they actually see or hear. And it’s why when their brains are busy watching a basketball game and counting the passes between the players, they miss other phenomena.

These things have been known for a while. But now, increasingly, we have sensors to back us up: security cameras, digital recorders. And as those machines take over the monitoring and measuring of physical reality, our own views and testimony will be discounted. Referees in professional sports are already experiencing this. The testimony of eye-witnesses in court, I’m sure, will also be taken ever more lightly as digital evidence piles up.

My question: Is this progress? Will the brain simply be regarded as an instrument of art, feelings and communication, and an unreliable witness or judge of what’s happening in the world? Is this a good thing?

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