My husband has been enjoying a nostalgic trip to the early 1960’s since he’s found a YouTube channel that streams “Mr. Ed” shows. Mr. Ed was a horse that could talk, but he would only do it with his owner. Mr. Ed was quite neurotic and was always getting into various difficulties (it seems that the basic premise of the show was so outrageous that the writers realized they could take it just about anywhere).
When Mr. Ed was “talking,” his lips would move and a deep voice would speak. It’s a funny experience because part of your mind knows—of course—that that voice isn’t coming from the horse, but another part suspends disbelief and all of a sudden you’re ascribing human thoughts and emotions to Ed. (According to Wikipedia, the horse’s trainer at first got the horse to move his lips by putting nylon string in his mouth, but it didn’t take long for Mr. Ed to start moving his lips when touched on the front hoof by his trainer.)
One of the basic premises of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is that we are not aware of reality itself, but a mind-generated version of reality. Our senses take in various perceptions, and these are filtered through both hard-wired circuits (inherited from our animal ancestors) that construct a version of physical reality, plus beliefs, assumptions, and memories we have formed in our lifetimes. All this filtration and reality-construction happens before we become aware of the perceptions.
The illusion that Mr. Ed is talking is one example of the distortion caused by this process. When we see a mouth moving—even if it’s a horse’s mouth—and hear words being spoken, our minds naturally link them up.
Ventriloquists exploit this same illusion to trick us into believing that their voice is coming out of their puppet’s mouth. I love Triumph the Insult Comic Dog by Robert Smigel. Triumph is a crude rubber dog, and it’s absurdly obvious that “his” voice is coming from off-screen, yet the illusion is created that Triumph is really speaking or singing. In a video on Conan Late Night about the cruise ship that lost power in early 2013 in the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Smigel plays with the ventriloquism illusion. Sometimes the camera backs off and you can see Smigel’s mouth moving when it’s supposed to be Triumph speaking; at other times you see a close-up of Triumph “speaking” and his mouth isn’t moving. My mind said, “Something’s wrong! How can he be speaking if his mouth isn’t moving?” In other words, my brain was totally buying into the illusion.
The art of foley is another example of how our brain’s processing of visual and aural cues can create an illusion of reality. We see someone’s leg breaking and we hear celery snapping, we see someone being punched and we hear a raw steak being hit, we see someone riding a horse and hear two coconut halves banging together (see Monty Python’s The Holy Grail for an amusing riff on this illusion; at the very beginning of the clip you can see the servant with coconuts), and we really believe we’re hearing the actual sound of whatever action we’re seeing. I’ve thought about this while watching action movies—how does anyone know what the sound of a fifty-foot monster kicking around buses on a city street sounds like?
I saw a short film on Vimeo recently that provides an example of another way the brain’s reality-construction algorithms distort reality: we tend to interpret actions as the volitional choices of an agent. Psychologists have described how research subjects will watch shapes move on a computer screen, and then come up with stories that explain why the shapes move the way they do. “The triangle wanted to get away from the circle,” they might say. Our minds were clearly designed to look for signs of agency in the world, and then come up with explanations for our observations that ascribe intent to the moving object. You can see how this would have been a benefit to us in this past. For example, imagine seeing grass moving in the wind, and a lion stalking through the grass. We distinguish between the movement of grass and lion, because the lion has the intent to move towards the antelope to attack, while the grass’s movement has no intent, it is the passive response to the wind.
Watch “A Girl Named Elastika” and notice the sensations of belief popping up, that even in this short animation using push-pins and rubber bands, the illusion of action and volition seem real.
Optical illusions are a great way to explore how the mind creates our reality. Neuroscientist and artist Beau Lotto gave a TED talk in 2009 entitled “Optical Illusions Show How We See.” One of Mr. Lotto’s demonstrations involves a drawing of various geometric shapes. He isolated two sections of the drawing that conveyed exactly the same visual information to the viewer’s brain—same shape, size, and color. Then he revealed where these two areas fit into the larger diagram: one was the shaded side of a yellow box while the other was an illuminated side of an orange box. They may have conveyed exactly the same information to my retina, but when I looked at the complete picture I saw different colored boxes, one in shade and the other not. The two surfaces didn’t look the same to me, even though I knew they were identical.
The lesson I take from this is the importance of humility: always be willing to question my perception of reality. If I can be so wrong about reality as to think a horse is talking, what else might I be deluded about?