Illusions and your experience of your life

Posted by on Sep 22, 2007 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments


Have always been a big fan of stage magicians and illusionists like the great Harry Houdini (see picture), because I know it can’t be Magic (but can’t spot the “magic” trickery). Houdini actually spent a large part of the 1920s to reveal how the whole thing was mere stagecraft.

So much for stage illusions: New Scientist has a great piece this week (which amplifies chapter 2 of HERD) to demonstrate how illusory our experience of our own lives is.

Examples they cite are the sense we have of a constant stream of vision of the world (the brain joins the dots of the still photography of saccades), how sounds are not as we hear them, how easy it is to trick our minds (e.g. in the rubber hand illusion), the fact that we only see what we pay attention to (remember the “gorillas in our midst” experiment?) rather than everything and – of course – how unreliable and maleable our memories are.

Each of us imagines that our experience of the world is an accurate depiction of it. We have to – we’d be lost or go mad without it. We have to assume that how we experience things is accurate…

Even though this science tells us it’s largely illusion.

It’s really hard to get our heads around the fact the convincing accounts people give us of their lives – in market research or in therapy – are based on such fundamentally flawed data. These witness statements are flawed through and through.

Not in the way that Bishop Berkeley suggested (calling into question any knowledge we might have about the world and its existence but more importantly as accounts of our own lives and what shapes them.

But rather because social influence is the invisble key (and not how we experience things): Conformity researchers (like Aschand Stanley Milgram) have shown how the influence of other people on an individual is both very strong AND often invisible to the person affected.

Each individual human agent is part of a complex system of human agents (even when alone). He/she imagines that their experience of life is a true account of how things happen but the truth is their behaviour is shaped largely by their individual perception of those around them (real, imagined or remembered).

So next time you’re asked to listen to an individual’s account of their life, however convincing it seems (to them or you) please remember that account is…based on a series of illusions.


  1. John Dodds
    September 23, 2007

    So although I said I spent some of my life a couple of weeks ago enjoying a talk that you delivered, you’re saying that I might be labouring under an illusion?

  2. mike tyldesley
    September 25, 2007

    Thanks for this Mark. Yet again your blog costs me money. I showed this to my partner and she made me go out and buy the hard copy. Worth, it though.

  3. mark Earls
    September 25, 2007

    Yes, john it could all have actually been very different…
    And thanks to Mike for popping by also

  4. mark Earls
    September 25, 2007

    Yes, john it could all have actually been very different…
    And thanks to Mike for popping by also