The Müller-Lyer Illusion and You

Which horizontal line looks longer?
Turns out it’s an illusion called the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The horizontal lines are the same length.

 

Here’s the thing: Even after we have measured the lines and found them to be equal and have had the neurological basis of the illusion explained to us, our conscious awareness still perceives one line to be shorter than the other. One can know that the two lines are the same length whilst at the same time experience them as different lengths.This has a serious effect on our conception of the nature of experience.

 

The world around you is not the way you think it is.
Scientists believe that the illusion works because a portion of the brain that perceives that the one line is longer is “modular” — a kind of semi-independent department of the mind which deals with particular types of inputs, and automatically gives particular types of outputs, and whose inner workings are not accessible to any rational thought from the conscious awareness of the person. Consider the implications: Outside of a simple illusion, how many of our waking hours are managed by a part of the brain that is impervious to reason? Something in us that is deciding before we have any say? As David Eagleman says in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,

“Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.”

 

In the face of such truth, one must learn to pause. Tara Branch calls it the Sacred Pause:

“Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.”

Realize your first thought is never your best thought. Your first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what you’ve already heard, always the unoriginal conventional wisdom and ridden with stereotypes and inaccuracies. To choose how to construct your own meaning means concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient; to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them and to outlast your impulses. To defeat your desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing is the only way you stand a chance at understanding anything.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about the world
The Müller-Lyer Illusion counts against the claim that seeing is believing. If seeing is believing, then when experiencing the Müller-Lyer Illusion, one would simultaneously believe that the lines were, and were not, the same length at the same time; but this is irrational — how could you simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs?

 

These contradictory beliefs cause cognitive dissonance. Feelings of discomfort result when there is an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors. Relief comes when something changes to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. In this case, you brain itself provides the relief — it chooses one line to be longer despite all evidence to the contrary.

 

So it is with the world we inhabit and our own beliefs. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, politics to religion, we can’t look at sequences of events without weaving an explanation into them based on what we already believe and have already experienced. When new ideas arrive that threaten your belief system, the truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to accept them. They are literally filtered out and might as well not exist.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about yourself
Ryan Holiday, from Ego Is The Enemy explains that we need to

“resist the comfort of reducing our lives into a story that retroactively creates a clarity that wasn’t and never will be there.”

Crafting a life story out of past events or future ones that don’t exist leads to an arrogant narrative—taking full credit for any good that happens, when in fact, you’re a small part of a large universe.

 

Our brains are wired to try to make sense of things, to see patterns that aren’t there, because there is just too much information to sift through and we need to think the world is not random and that we have control. So our minds take shortcuts by constantly choosing the most likely interpretation of what we see. The brain is designed to be efficient, not accurate.

 

Sometimes the brain’s constant predicting of what will happen is helpful, otherwise we would never have any reason to be confident about anything. In some cases however, it’s predictions are incredibly harmful to us. We jump to conclusions and become expert mind readers and fortune tellers, creating negative interpretations of events that are non-existent. These distortions of thought can turn a negative event into a never-ending pattern of defeat despite little to no evidence. More thought distortions cause our brains to classify everything as either fantastic or awful, perfect or a total failure instead of recognizing everything is on a spectrum. We hang on too tightly to “should” statements about ourselves that we cannot live up to, piling guilt on ourselves. Then we cling to our “should” statements about others and are disappointed they don’t meet our invented expectations leading to anger and resentment.

 

Don’t accept your emotions as fact. Put thoughts on trial. Examine the evidence. You’re not perceiving what’s out there, you’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.