Unmasking the "Vain Brain"

by Greg Mackie

Source of material commented on: http://tinyurl.com/2ewvd8
(Amazon listing for A Mind of Its Own, which includes the cited review)

I recently read a review of what looks like a fascinating book: A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, by Cordelia Fine, a psychologist at the Australian National University. (The review is by Richard Lipkin, and appears in the August/September 2006 issue of Scientific American Mind.) The main theme of this book is how the human mind distorts perceptions to make itself look good: a phenomenon Fine calls the "vain brain."

According to Fine, our brains go to amazing lengths to bias perceptions in our favor. We take credit for success and blame others for failure. We selectively edit our memories to preserve our self-image. When we fail, we engage in what Fine calls "retroactive pessimism," telling ourselves that the situation was hopeless from the beginning. We ease the sting of future failures by setting up excuses in advance. We grimly hold on to ideas we are emotionally invested in spite of all evidence to the contrary: "Don't confuse me with the facts!" At the extreme end, our ability to warp perception can get truly bizarre; Lipkin mentions an actual psychological condition called "Cotard delusion," in which people think they are dead.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to catch ourselves doing all this self-deception, because so much of it is unconscious. Fine recommends self-awareness as a tool to help mitigate these distortions to some extent, but this self-awareness comes with a price. There is one group of people, she says, who are highly self-aware and thus more honest with themselves than the rest of us. Who are they? "They are the clinically depressed." Have a nice day.

A Course in Miracles speaks of the same phenomenon (though the Course would call it "vain mind," since in its view the nonphysical mind, not the physical brain, is the actual source of perception). In the Course's view, a largely unconscious process of selective attention and selective interpretation constructs the entire world we see. And a major impetus behind our selective perception is to make ourselves look good—to preserve what the Course calls our specialness. Indeed, the Course says that we'll do virtually anything to protect our precious self-image from harm:

How bitterly does everyone tied to this world defend the specialness he wants to be the truth! His wish is law to him, and he obeys. Nothing his specialness demands does he withhold. Nothing it needs does he deny to what he loves. And while it calls to him he hears no other Voice. No effort is too great, no cost too much, no price too dear to save his specialness from the least slight, the tiniest attack, the whispered doubt, the hint of threat, or anything but deepest reverence. (T-24.VII.1:1-6)

The Course speaks of many ways we protect our specialness, including ways that remind me of the mental tricks Fine describes. We engage in a "campaign to blame" our partner for relationship failures (T-17.V.11:9, T-17.V.8:2). Our "remembering is as selective as perception, being its past tense" (T-28.I.2:5). We look upon our own failures much more charitably than those of others: "[Your errors] are mistakes, but his are sins and not the same as yours. His merit punishment, while yours, in fairness, should be overlooked" (T-27.II.13:5-6). Our self-image is so precious to us that we will "savagely defend [this self] against all reason, every evidence, and all the witnesses with proof to show this is not you" (W-pI.166.7:2). And oddly enough, this self-image we defend so savagely is essentially a version of Cotard delusion: Since, in the Course's view, our true Self in Heaven is the only part of us that is really alive (see T-23.II.19), our obstinate belief that we are special selves encased in mortal bodies really amounts to the belief that we are dead.

Like Fine, the Course counsels us to counter this self-deception with self-awareness: what it calls mental vigilance. We may well experience periods of depression as we pull the glittering mask off our inflated ego and see just how lowly our actual self-image really is. Yet from the Course's standpoint, depression is not the end of the story. Looking at our lowly self-image with unflinching honesty gives us both the opportunity and incentive to set it aside and embrace who we really are: the holy Son of God. The self we frantically try to prop up with our "vain brain" is a pathetic illusion, but "You who are beloved of Him are no illusion, being as true and holy as Himself" (T-23.I.10:1). There's nothing vain or depressing about that.

One Comment