12 July 2011

We can’t always trust our brains

Neurologist Steven Novella has written an illuminating post on sleep paralysis. He describes this often frightening experience, then explains its neurobiological causes.

One striking thing about this post (and the comments on it) is how grateful and relieved sufferers of sleep paralysis are once they know and understand the mechanism behind their scary experiences. A lot of people – usually romantic types – accuse science of cruelly taking away their cherished illusions, of robbing life of its mystery by driving away the soft shadows with the harsh, bright light of rationality and knowledge. Yet in the case of sleep paralysis we have a clear example of science giving comfort to people, by reassuring them that they weren’t going mad, or being molested by evil spirits or inquisitive aliens.

Another take-home point from Novella’s post is that our brains are prone to misreading reality, even creating delusions of their own. This is why subjective claims to truth and knowledge made by anyone have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Unless those claims have passed through a rigorous screening process (scientific methodology, fact checking and corroboration, tests), they cannot be vouched for. It’s probably fair to say that gullible people do not adequately appreciate how flawed the human brain is. They assume that the brain and the senses are unfailingly accurate interpreters of the world and its happenings, which biases them towards accepting unproven or far-fetched claims as being plausible, if not true.

Dr Novella said it best:

Our brains are capable of distorting, filtering, and interpreting sensory input, of altering memories and even generating false memories, and of generating false experiences. While it is good enough for everyday activity, our brains have many flaws. We cannot rely upon our memories of our experiences to understand the world, especially when those experiences are unexpected or unusual. We need external verification, objective measurement, and careful recording of data.

In other words – we need science and skepticism to compensate for the flaws and pitfalls of our neurobiology.


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