In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye

Adolf Fischer, a British labor activist was innocent yet tried and sentenced to death in 1887. With the rope around his neck, and shortly before the trap opened below his feet, he screamed that this is the happiest day in his life. He died with his goals unachieved.

One year after Fischer was hanged, a bright young fellow perfected the process of dry photography, launched his revolutionary Kodak Camera, and instantly became one of the richest men in the world. In 1932, the wealthy man surprised everybody by killing himself.

To our simple mind, the part that thinks fast, the outcomes of these 2 lives seem contradictory. How can a rich man who has achieved all the goals he set for himself commit suicide while a poor guy who hasn’t achieved anything and sentenced while innocent claim that he is dying happy?

The above can be partially explained by the fact that when our brain has incomplete information about a situation, it tends to take the information it has as all there is, and make simplistic assumptions to fill in the gaps and grasp the rest of the situation. Daniel Kahneman calls this WYSIATI (What You See is All There Is).

Our retina is attached to our brain by a nerve. At the intersection we have a blind spot. But our eyesight is not interrupted. We never see this blind spot. Why? Because our brain takes the information it has about the surrounding of the blind spot to assume what the content of the blind spot should be, and complete it. I tried the below experiment from the book. Unless you are reading this article on an iPad don’t try it, it won’t work on your computer. As your right eye gets closer to the magician, the earth at some point will go through your eye’s blind spot. Your brain will see the white around it and assume that the content of the blind spot should be white, and the earth will disappear. It will reappear when you get past the blind spot.

ImageOur memory retrieval process, like our eye, performs multiple filling in when it has incomplete information. And given that at any single moment, our senses are getting a multitude of information and our brain is going through an infinity of thoughts, it is virtually impossible to store all this information in our memory. When we want to remember how we felt in the past, we remember highlights, ups and downs, but also random stuff, and our brain fills in the rest. Therefore, the process of remembering how we felt at some point back in time is a far from perfect process. And given that we make most of our decisions for the future based on our past experience, we end up making the wrong choices some times over and over again.

Read on a bit about George Eastman and Adolf Fischer to find out that in short, Fischer died as a hero while Eastman was suffering from a terrible spine illness, which might explain a bit better the different views they had on their lives, but aren’t these simplifications that suffer from the filling in illusion as well?

Note: This is part 2 of my book review of Stumbling on Happiness. itallics are verbatim copy paste from the book. You can find part 1 of the book review here.

To be continued

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