robert_provine's picture
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Author, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond
Common Sense

We fancy ourselves intelligent, conscious and alert, and thinking our way through life. This is an illusion. We are deluded by our brain's generation of a sketchy, rational narrative of subconscious, sometimes irrational or fictitious events that we accept as reality. These narratives are so compelling that they become common sense and we use them to guide our lives. In cases of brain damage, neurologists use the term confabulation to describe a patient's game but flawed attempt to produce an accurate narrative of life events. I suggest we be equally wary of everyday, non-pathological confabulation and retire the common sense hypothesis that we are rational beings in full conscious control of our lives. Indeed, we may be passengers in our body, just going along for the ride, and privy only to second-hand knowledge of our status, course and destination.

Behavioral and brain science detects chinks in our synthetic, neurologically generated edifice of reality. Research on sensory illusions indicates that percepts are simply our best estimate of the nature of physical stimuli, not a precise rendering of things and events. The image of our own body is an oddly shaped product of brain function. Memory of things past is also fraught with uncertainty; it is not the reading-out of information from the brain's neurological data bank, but an ongoing construct subject to error and bias. The brain also makes decisions and initiates action before the observer is consciously aware of detecting and responding to stimuli. My own research found that people confabulate narratives to rationalize their laughter, such as "It was funny," or "I was embarrassed," neglecting laughter's involuntary nature and frequent contagiousness.

Our lives are guided by a series of these guesstimates about the behavior and mental state of ourselves and others that, although imperfect, are adaptive and sufficiently accurate to enable us to muddle along. However, as scientists, we demand more than default explanations based on common sense. Behavioral and brain science provides a path to understanding that challenges the myths of mental life and everyday behavior. One of its delights is that it often turns reality on its head, revealing hidden processes and providing revelations about who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going.