The Nuance

Why Things Never Seem to Get Better

Researchers may have identified a brain quirk that promotes pessimism

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readJul 7, 2021

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Photo by Tobias Bjerknes on Unsplash

Your brain is like a faultless movie projector. Sights, sounds, and a jumble of other sensory information pass into it via the spinning reel of your existence, and your brain reconstitutes that hodgepodge into an objective, lossless experience that you call consciousness.

Of course, that’s wrong.

Your brain is actually not a faultless projector. The reality it makes for you is biased and suggestible. Expectation, experience, emotion, and many other variables shape the world that your brain creates.

In his 2019 book Rethinking Consciousness, the Princeton psychologist and neuroscientist Michael Graziano explains that the brain’s interpretation of reality is built upon internal models that are patchy, subjective, and skewed— “like impressionistic or cubist paintings of reality,” he writes.

“Our intuitive understanding of the world around us and our understanding of ourselves, always distorted and simplified, are dependent on those internal models,” he adds.

A lot of recent scientific inquiry has explored how the brain constructs these internal models, and how their flaws may get us into trouble.

Some of that work has examined the brain’s heavy reliance on predictions born of experience. While helpful in some contexts, those predictions — and, by extension, your reality — may be imbalanced in deeply problematic ways.

Take a look at this dot:

Is it blue or is it purple?

For a 2018 study in the journal Science, researchers posed this question again and again. Over a series of five experiments, they found that peoples’ answers were surprisingly vulnerable to manipulation.

In one experiment, the researchers showed people hundreds of dots that ranged in hue from solidly blue to solidly purple. At first, the proportion of blue- to purple-colored dots was equal, and the people’s answers reflected this split. But after a while, the researchers showed some of the people fewer and fewer blue dots. Invariably, these people started to label more of the purple-shaded…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.