Useful delusions

How self-deceptions help us make sense of a chaotic reality

In the 1980s, artist David Hockney, who was then best known for his vibrant paintings,  began experimenting with photography. Originally critical of the medium, Hockney decided to use photography as a way to play with time. He took photos from different perspectives and joined them to create one kaleidoscopic image. In his installation Seven Yorkshire Landscapes, Hockney used this technique with moving images. He mounted a series of cameras, each with a different zoom level and field of view, to a car and drove through the countryside in Yorkshire, England.

In her book, How to Do Nothing, artist and educator Jenny Odell explores Hockney’s work and the effect it has on our perception. After talking to docents on a tour of Seven Yorkshire Landscapes, Odell discovered something interesting:

“Some museumgoers who had seen the piece came back to tell them that afterward everything outside had looked different from what they were used to . . . Hockney’s piece had trained them to look a certain way – a noticeable slow, broken-up luxuriating in textures.”

You may even notice this effect after watching the video above. Odell uses Hockney’s work to illustrate how we can train ourselves to pay closer attention to the world around us. But it’s also interesting to consider how malleable human perception is in the first place. A piece of art can literally change how you see the world. It’s easy, then, to understand how you might see the world differently from someone else — or even from yourself at a different point in time.

Hockney’s work brings to mind Gestalt psychology: the theory that when you look at a tree, for instance, you don’t perceive each individual branch or leaf vein all at once. Your brain takes those images and simplifies them so you’re able to see the whole tree, rather than a series of disjointed components. It’s a useful and necessary illusion – without it, looking at a tree would be utter chaos.

It can be uncomfortable to think about the fact that what we see is just an approximation of reality. Equally unsettling is the idea that we may fail to see clearly when it comes to other aspects of our lives, such as our relationships with our loved ones. Yet there are benefits to not seeing the world and our role in it with complete accuracy and rationality. 

Over the years, Hidden Brain’s Shankar Vedantam started to see evidence of this in research across a range of fields. Seeing only part of the world, or even having an inaccurate view of the world, can sometimes be helpful to us. This may be particularly true when it comes to our relationships with other people. As he puts it, “ If we actually saw our partners and friends and colleagues for exactly who they are all the time, we might judge them somewhat harshly. . . . So allowing these relationships to function for long periods of time often requires some acts of self-deception, where you preferentially focus on the things that are good in the relationship and preferentially ignore the things that are bad in the relationship.” Like David Hockney with his camera, our minds subtly choose to zoom in and focus on some parts of our world — and leave other elements outside the frame. 

ON THE PODCAST

April 5: What would happen if we never lied to ourselves ever again? We assume we’d be happier and live more productive lives. But researchers increasingly find that some self-deception may be good for us. This week, we bring you an episode of the public radio program “Think,” in which Shankar talks with host Krys Boyd about his new book, Useful Delusions.

April 12: A virus is more than a biological organism. It’s a social organism. It detects fissures in societies and fault lines between communities. Historian Nancy Bristow shares the lessons that we can take today from a century-old pandemic.

April 19: Why is humor in short supply in many of our lives? This week, we explore the psychological effects of humor, and why so many of us fall off a “humor cliff” as we become adults. Plus, why indulging in a joke can be a powerful way to unlock creativity and productivity.

FROM THE TWITTERATI

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WHAT SHANKAR IS READING

The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald Hoffman

Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene

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