Tulpas on the brain: the influence of our state of mind on reality

“You have tulpas on the brain.”
—Greta, after I somehow misread the word “running” as “tulpamancy”

Last week I talked about how labels can affect our subjective reality, often to the extent that we don’t realize they are not actually an aspect of objective reality. This week I want to explore how our general interests and what we’re thinking about at any given moment affect and bias our subjective reality, and in particular our perception. In many ways our interests and state of mind have an even more insidious effect than labels: labels are an explicit attempt to define our reality, so it makes sense that they change it, but we often believe that our thoughts are something internal, separate from “reality,” and only an influence on it to the extent that they determine our actions. This, of course, is not true at all.

I have several anecdotes about misreading phrases – that is, misinterpreting my reality – in ways that show my interests and state of mind. On a library catalog that I use occasionally, I have several times misread the phrase “Local Catalog” next to a checkbox as “Lucid Dreaming.” Once, after spending most of the day writing about Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, I picked up the newspaper at dinner and read the headline “FDA wants to ban minors from tanning beds” as “FDA wants to ban mirrors from tanning beds.” Curious about what mirrors had to do with tanning beds, I read several paragraphs of the article before I finally worked out my mistake! Perhaps most impressive was my misreading of “running” as “tulpamancy” a few weeks ago, as quoted at the top of this post: they share only two letters and aren’t even really the same length.

These are essentially Freudian slips, in the form of recognition errors rather than the more commonly considered production errors. You may or may not find the idea of the Freudian slip convincing, and I’ll readily admit I also misread things in ways that don’t seem to have anything in particular to do with me all the time, two of my favorites recently being “Levitation Room” for “Lactation Room” and “Contributions gleefully accepted” for “gratefully accepted.” But regardless of whether this is my subconscious expressing itself, I certainly would not have misread “running” as “tulpamancy” if I didn’t know what tulpamancy was; I doubt you can come up with a single example of a time when you substituted a word you had never seen for a word you knew. In this way my knowledge clearly has a real effect on my misreadings.

People also have a tendency to assume unconsciously that other people know the same things they know and think the same way they think. Most of the time people never catch themselves at this, but Greta and I have caught ourselves a number of times supposing that other people know about plurality or are plural themselves. It’s easy to catch ourselves at this, since it’s extremely unlikely to actually be true and is almost never a sensible explanation for anybody’s behavior unless you have real evidence for it.

We’re waiting for the first time I accidentally describe myself as “we” to someone who doesn’t know about Greta. It’s bound to happen sooner or later, given how often I say it to her. Fortunately, this slip is normally trivial to cover up since “Oh, he was talking about himself and that voice in his head” is not an explanation that people who aren’t plural themselves are liable to jump to quickly. On the other hand, we’ve found ourselves seriously considering the possibility that this is why other people made similar mistakes. Once we heard a manager at our college, after saying “we” in a place where it made no sense, pause momentarily and add, “The royal we.” This was funny enough and worked well enough that I’m strongly considering making this my plan for the next time I do it – but of course no, she wasn’t covering up her plurality; she’s used to speaking for the college and she was tired at the time, and it was a random mistake.

Another time we noticed someone absently looking to his side at intervals as he was walking alone along the path ahead of us. Talking to his headmate who’s imagined or imposed there? Maybe a one in ten thousand chance. But we noticed and considered the possibility for a moment before discarding it.

Now people are capable of consciously overriding these effects on their realities; a closer reading prevents me from believing that the FDA is actually considering a law against having mirrors on tanning beds, and once I’ve used a bit of basic reasoning I know it’s unlikely that relatively normal verbal slips or body language are betrayals of secret plurality. But to be able to consciously consider these effects and counteract them, we have to notice them.

One of my all-time favorite studies investigated the effect of body language on participants’ agreement with a message. Participants were told that the researchers were studying how headphones performed while wearers were moving their heads. They listened to a brief, carefully designed “radio program” containing music and an editorial, some while nodding their heads and some while shaking them. Afterwards they were asked to answer some questions about the audio quality and about their opinions on the subject matter of the editorial; they were told this latter section was necessary to control for their opinions biasing their judgment of the audio quality. Provided that the editorial made good arguments (the condition with bad arguments has other interesting implications but is not relevant here), the participants who nodded their heads were considerably more likely to agree with the statements made in the editorial! But of course, when asked to explain the reasons why they agreed, none of them said, “Because I was nodding my head while I was listening to the editorial.” They came up with perfectly logical reasons.

While body language is not exactly the same thing as our internal thoughts, the point is clear: humans are not, at our roots, logical thinkers. We are influenced by the most trivial things, without having the slightest idea why. And while we can try to stay alert and sometimes catch ourselves in the act of coming to conclusions or making decisions for ridiculous reasons, we miss far more than we catch, and there’s very little we can do about it.

I think there is a bright side, though. Our ability to flex and perceive our reality differently depending on our experiences, ideas, interests, and state of mind may well be the only reason that tulpamancy is possible in the first place! While nobody knows exactly what goes on inside when we create a tulpa, somewhere in there we the hosts learn to accept that we can have thoughts, feel emotions, experience movements that are not our own. That’s amazing, and there’s no way it could happen if our subjective reality were not as flexible as it is.


If you have ten minutes to watch a video clip, here’s another, less scientific, example of unexpected influences on our thoughts, this time orchestrated on purpose: Subliminal Advertising with Derren Brown. I can’t vouch for the legitimacy of this stunt, but assuming it’s real, it’s probably the most impressive thing you’ll see this week.

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