Happiness: A Theory — The Unreliable Narrator

The world of fiction includes works where, over time, the reader receives clues that the story is being told by someone who, in one manner or another, has warped the delivery of information. 

Chris Frith, in describing how vision works, analogizes to engineering, in which a model is created, with certain errors, it is put out into the world, and the world provides feedback to allow the model to be changed.  Our perceptions work the same way, he says, although our brains tell us the opposite: that perception is the reception of data from outside world, which we then process.  See Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science Podcast #57.

Although the brain thereby participates in a feedback loop, allowing perceptions to be refined, there appears to have been little evolutionary percentage in perceiving the loop itself.  As a consequence, we run the risk of taking our perceptions at face value, like courtroom witnesses who testify to strikingly different accounts of the same event.  Is it possible that we evolved certain deceptive mechanisms to compensate for the increased brain size and the trouble that too much knowledge might cause? 

We crave, we need, the social interaction.  Babies die without it, prisoners in solitary confinement are known to commit suicide.  And so, we often take the feedback we receive from our fellow humans as truth.  Once we recognize the inherent error in our mode of perception, however, we may influence our well being by placing less stock in our initial reaction to our milieu, the cultural norms around us, the physical world, and the like. 

It appears that we are, indeed, unreliable narrators of our own lives.  Like a well-told tale, though, there is beauty in the deviation.  Happiness may come, in no small degree, when we drop our insistence on getting the story straight.

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