Filling Holes IV: Social Distortion

As your brain works to augment your reality, change what you see, and change what you think about it, what role does social behavior play? In a fascinating experiment in the 1950s, Soloman Asche conducted a simple experiment where subjects were asked to match which of three lines matched the length of a fourth line. Simple right? Yeah. Almost all subjects got it right every time ... until they added people. They planted 7 other people in the room who acted like they were subjects, but intentionally identified the wrong line. What happened? Subjects would start guessing the wrong line 41% of the time!!! Wow.

The experiment was repeated last year with the new wonders of the MRI to diagnose what exactly was happening in the brain. Clearly the brain's forebrain which is designed to moderate conflict (in this case perception vs. social conformity) must be more active in this decision than the posterior brain which manages perception.

Actually not. Instead, scientists saw increased activity in the areas that affect mental rotation: the majority's choice affected the subject's perception. It's not that the brain made a choice between the two at higher levels of brain function. Instead, it actually changed the image in the subject's head at much lower levels. Thus 41% alteration.

So social norms, discussion, and pressuring can affect your perceived reality. It is an input to your brain in a vat, a la Descartes. And though your brain is well adapted for these functions developed specifically to help you survive (in this case there is a value to social conformity), it does create an illusion. And again, over time, the externally reinforced illusion is well, reinforcing itself, internally. And over time, this can create a delusion. Even brazilian models see mostly imperfections when they look at their idealized body. So many beautiful women I know describe how fat they are, even though they may be gorgeous. And while it is so hard for me to understand the delusion, the continuous social reinforcement and recent studies put clues into what is happening here. If outside opinion can extend or shorten a line, it probably is extending and shortening the lines of your body at the perception levels of the brain.

If you are looking in the mirror and thinking you look fat -It may not be that you are fat. It may not even be that you think your actual body is fat. You may just see fat. So when I respond after a self-deprecating comment by a girl, "Are you blind?" The answer just may well be "Yes."

Next time you look in the mirror, you may just wonder what you really are looking at.