How Psychological Blind Spots and Illusions Shape Our Reality

The Reality Bubble Book CoverIf the history of science over the last 450 years has taught us anything, it is that there is a major mismatch between perception and reality. The invisible forces so important to our understanding of the world—from heliocentrism and gravity to evolution and microorganisms—were discovered only by scientists bold and radical enough to see what everyone else was blind to. It is only through the extension of our senses and the transcendence of our cognitive limitations that we have made any progress in our knowledge of the world at all.

That human sensation and perception is limited is a major understatement: humans can see less than 1 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum (visible light), making us literally blind to 99 percent of it. Other animals can not only see better and farther than us, many have greater sensitivity to a wider range of colors while others can see ultraviolet and infrared light and even magnetic fields. We are deaf to most frequencies and incapable of experiencing many smells, tastes, and sensations. We are blind to the smallest scales (and to the trillions of bacterial cells that inhabit our bodies) and to the farthest reaches of the known universe (46 billion light-years across).

These blind spots collectively and colossally distort our picture of reality. While evolution has equipped us, like other animals, with a niche psychological profile that allows us to navigate the environment and survive, our sensory apparatus provides access to only an infinitesimally small sliver of reality. This small sliver is the psychological bubble that we all inhabit, and if we want to learn more about the true nature of reality, that requires viewing the world through the corrective lenses of science.

In The Reality Bubble, Ziya Tong equips the reader with these corrective lenses, exposing 10 blind spots that persistently deceive us. By understanding our limitations, we come to see that reality is not what it seems, and that we have to work hard to overcome the biases that consistently plague the human mind. Science, while fundamentally provisional, is the only reliable method we can use to get closer to the truth.

In the first part of the book, Tong covers three biological blind spots that “would have us believe that we are the centre of the universe, isolated and separate from the world around us, and superior to all other creatures.” We not only have the perceptual limitations mentioned above, but we also have a sense of exceptionalism that tells us that the universe revolves around us, that everything happens for our benefit, and that we are the only animals that have the capacity to feel, think, and communicate.

As Tong shows, this is demonstrably false, and she covers many fascinating studies in animal behavior and physiology that demonstrate that animals likely experience rich emotional lives. Emotions did not spontaneously generate themselves exclusively in human brains; to think this would be to believe, as Tong states, in a form of neo-creationism or in a “decapitated theory of evolution.” As the primatologist Frans de Waal wrote, this type of thinking “accepts evolution but only half of it…It views our minds as so original that there is no point comparing it to other minds except to confirm its exceptional status.”

Our shared evolutionary history with other animals means that our emotional profile is also more than likely shared, and although we can never know exactly what it’s like to experience the world from an animal’s perspective, we can be reasonably sure that there IS a perspective, and that animals are not simply biological robots.

This recognition of animal emotion transitions us into the second part of the book, where Tong investigates another blind spot: where our food comes from. If we could all spend a day at a factory farm, we’d all probably give up eating meat, but since we don’t, we stay blind to the suffering of animals and go on accepting the view that humans have a right to own, enslave, torture, and sell life.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg regarding our social blind spots. We are also blind to where our energy comes from and where our waste goes, and of course, to climate change. You can’t see carbon dioxide concentration or experience global average temperatures, so it’s no wonder that it is so easily dismissed or ignored, regardless of what most experts in climate science think.

The third part of the book covers intergenerational blind spots, including our distorted conceptions of time, space, ownership, and money. The key idea is that we are so used to the way things are that we not only stop questioning them, we’re not even aware that things could be any other way. This is of course why philosophy and science are so important. They keep active inquiry alive and inoculate us from those who seek to exploit our complacency for their own benefit. No wonder tyrants have no use for philosophy, science, reasoned debate, or the institutions that support them.

We all live in a consumer society that is largely materialistic because we all believe that this is the best way to structure society. Most of us don’t even give it a second thought. We divide our days into 8 hour shifts and produce massive quantities of things that don’t really make us happier or more fulfilled. We then consume them to no end, throwing away millions of products we once clamored for but have grown numb to, all the while making the rich richer and polluting the planet. Perhaps this isn’t the best way to structure society.

The counter-argument, of course, is that life has gotten appreciably better; life expectancy has increased as has leisure time, literacy rates, and access to knowledge, while violence, war, and poverty have all declined. Surely we’ve done some things right, and although we have some blind spots, the tone of the book misses this more optimistic picture. There is something to be said of this view, but it does rely, quite uncomfortably, on the outcomes of climate change: if the consequences are anything near as bad as predicted, all of our gains will have been achieved at the expense of future generations. So while we can celebrate our progress and accomplishments, we should take seriously the idea that we should probably stop destroying the planet and all of its non-human life, in addition to the idea that wealth could be more equitably distributed and that our lives should be oriented around something more meaningful than the latest iPhone iteration.

My only complaints about the book are that it didn’t cover enough psychology and it ignored one of our biggest collective blind spots—religion.

First, one might expect that cognitive biases and fallacies of reasoning would occupy a more prominent role in the book, but most of the content is sociological rather than psychological. This isn’t really a big issue, but it might not be what you’re expecting. There were moments where I felt that the author could have delved deeper into the psychology, especially that of conformance, as one example.

Second, it was surprising to me to not see any space dedicated to religion in the section on intergenerational blind spots. If anything can distort reality and run counter to the ideals of science, and to the stated ideals of the book, it is religion. The author is willing to expose any views not entirely consistent with reality yet is unwilling to address the elephant in the room that is religion. I understand that this is a touchy subject, but science is about delivering uncomfortable truths. The author praises radical thinkers that subvert common views with rational science, yet is unwilling to do so in this area.

Remember that the first part of the book discussed biological blind spots that “would have us believe that we are the centre of the universe, isolated and separate from the world around us, and superior to all other creatures.” Funny, because this is exactly what most religions do. Christianity, for example, makes the rather humble claim that God in his infinite power and wisdom created the entire universe just for us.

So religion can not only distort reality, it can also cause serious social harm; after all, if you think that God has a plan to return to earth and save all of humanity, you’re not going to be especially concerned with something small like climate change. Considering the ubiquity of religion, it seems like maybe this is something the author should have addressed.

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