Are you fooling yourself?

Hidden thoughts

Good scientists relentlessly seek truth, and have rigorous processes for discovering it.

Renowned physicist Richard Feynman has a description of the process that goes like this:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Most non-scientists are cavalier about discerning truth, and they’re pretty easy to fool.

After all, they’re often fooling themselves.

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

How do you know when you’re fooling yourself?

It’s tricky, because you have to examine your own mind. And that’s not easy to do.

Even if you close your eyes and focus completely on your passing thoughts, what happens?

You’re aware of only the conscious part of your mind.

You’re still not locked in on the subconscious (or unconscious) part.

And yet your unconscious mind determines a lot of what you do.

So if you want to figure out how not to fool yourself then perhaps…

You should examine how much of what you do is determined by your unconscious.

Most people tend to downplay the role of the unconscious

Even scientists like Richard Feynman.

I noticed this when reading his book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.

The book is about his dogged effort to understand how the world we live in works, including the phenomenon of hypnosis.

When he first experiments with hypnosis (as a professor at Princeton) he expects one result, but winds up getting a completely different outcome.

Here’s the passage (which starts on page 180 of the book).

“Dean Eisenhart would begin each dinner by saying grace in Latin. After dinner he would often get up and make some announcements. One night Dr. Eisenhart got up and said ‘two weeks from now, a professor of psychology is coming to give a talk about hypnosis.

Now, this professor thought it would be much better if we had a real demonstration of hypnosis instead of just talking about it. Therefore he would like some people to volunteer to be hypnotized…’

I got all excited: there’s no question but that I’ve got to find out about hypnosis. This is going to be terrific!

Dean Eisenhart went on to say that it would be good if three or four people would volunteer so that the hypnotist could try them out first to see which ones would be able to be hypnotized, so he’d like to urge very much that we apply for this.

Eisenhart was down at one end of the hall, and I was way down at the other end, in the back. There were hundreds of guys there. I knew everybody was going to want to do this, and I was terrified that he wouldn’t see me because I was so far back.

I just had to get in on this demonstration!

Finally Eisenhart said, ‘and so I would like to ask if they’re going to be any volunteers….’

I raised my hand and shot out of my seat, screaming as loud as I could, to make sure that he would hear me: ‘MEEEEEEEE!’

He heard me all right, because there wasn’t another soul.

My voice reverberated throughout the hall – it was very embarrassing. Eisenhart’s immediate reaction was ‘yes, of course, I knew you would volunteer, Mr. Feynman, but I was wondering if there would be anybody else.’

Finally a few other guys volunteered, and a week before the demonstration the man came to practice on us, to see if any of us would be good for hypnosis. I knew about the phenomenon, but I didn’t know what it was like to be hypnotized.

He started to work on me and soon I got into a position where he said, ‘you can’t open your eyes’ I said to myself, ‘I bet I could open my eyes, but I don’t want to disturb the situation: let’s see how much further it goes.’

It was an interesting situation: you’re only slightly fogged out, and although you’ve lost a little bit, you’re pretty sure you can open your eyes. But of course you’re not opening your eyes, so in a sense you can’t do it.

He went through a lot of stuff and decided that I was pretty good.

When the real demonstration came he had us walk on stage, and he hypnotized us in front of the whole Princeton Graduate College. This time the effect was stronger; I guess I had learned how to become hypnotized.

The hypnotist made various demonstrations, having me do things that I normally couldn’t do, and at the end he said that after I came out of hypnosis, instead of returning to my seat directly, which was the natural way to go, I would walk all the way around the room and go to my seat from the back.

After the demonstration I was vaguely aware of what was going on, and cooperating with the things the hypnotist said, but this time I decided, ‘Damn it, enough is enough! I’m gonna go straight to my seat.’

When it was time to get up and go off the stage, I started to walk straight to my seat. But then an annoying feeling came over me: I felt so uncomfortable that I couldn’t continue. I walked all the way around the hall.

I was hypnotized in another situation sometime later by a woman. While I was hypnotized she said, ‘I’m going to light a match, blow it out, and immediately touch the back of your hand with it. You will feel no pain.’

I thought, ‘Baloney!’ She took a match, lit, blew it out, and touched it to the back of my hand. It felt slightly warm. My eyes were closed throughout all of this, but I was thinking, ‘that’s easy. She lit one match, but touched a different match to my hand. There’s nothing to that; it’s a fake!’

When I came out of the hypnosis and looked at the back of my hand, I got the biggest surprise: there was a burn on the back of my hand. Soon the blister grew, and it never hurt at all, even when it broke.

So I found hypnosis to be a very interesting experience. All the time you’re saying to yourself, ‘I could do that, but I won’t’ — which is just another way of saying that you can’t.”

 Interesting isn’t it?

Feynman stares right into the power of the unconscious.

He writes that the hypnotist “[had] me do things that I normally couldn’t do.”

Really?! Like what things? (he doesn’t think it’s interesting enough to say).

Also, Feynman consciously intended to not act in accordance with the hypnotist’s suggestions, and but he follows all his suggestions anyway.

Pretty wild stuff.

So does Feynman become doggedly curious about how the unconscious works? No, he doesn’t. So it’s not surprising that most of us non-scientists aren’t very curious either.

And yet…

the unconscious clearly influences how we act, even determining how rigorous scientists like Richard Feynman act.

Now let’s put aside the question of how the unconscious influences our actions.

Do you think that the unconscious might also determine how you think?

And if you believe it doesn’t influence your thoughts, remember…

You might be fooling yourself.