When you eat vanilla pudding, which is also a pile of atoms, you are really just putting those atoms next to your atoms and waiting for some of them trade places.
If things had turned out differently back when your mom had that second glass of wine while your dad told that story about when he sat on a jellyfish while skinny dipping, the same atoms that glommed together to make your bones and your skin, your tongue and your brain could have been been rearranged to make other things. Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen – the whole collection of elements that make up your body right down to the vanadium, molybdenum and arsenic could be popped off of you, collected, and reused to make something else – if such a seemingly impossible technology existed.
Like a cosmic box of Legos, the building blocks of matter can take the shape of every form we know of from mountains to monkeys.
If you think about this long enough, you might stumble into the same odd questions scientists and philosophers ask from time to time. If we had an atom-exchanging machine, and traded one atom at a time from your body with an atom from the body of Edward James Olmos, at what point would you cease to be you and Olmos cease to be Edward James? During that process, would you lose your mind and gain his? At some point would each person’s thoughts and dreams and memories change hands?
As a motto for the sapient, “cogito ergo sum” is pretty fantastic. Every time I’m reminded of it, a twinge of pride flows through my veins. It makes me want to stand up straight and pronounce proudly to my cat, “I think, therefore I am,” and then take his blank stare and plaintive meow as confirmation of my vitality. To be human is to know you exist. It is to know you are, and to know you are you.
It’s fitting that Jules Cotard, a man who was a close friend of the philosopher Auguste Comte, would find a way to dull the edge of Descartes’ famous proclamation. In an era preceding automobiles and airplanes, Cotard transferred his interest in the philosophy of being into the medicine of being – neurology – and after serving as a military surgeon in 1870, Cotard joined a clinic that did what it could with the knowledge of the day. Cotard and others at the clinic treated those with what one lecturer at the time called “madness in all its forms.”
Cotard was one of the pioneers of neuroscience, connecting behavior to the physical locations in the brain. As he progressed in his career he became particularly interested in patients who exhibited aphasia, or difficulties with language. He would follow those patients past death to the autopsy table in search of the cause of their maladies, and he encouraged other doctors to do the same. Considering his background in philosophy, it must have been astonishing when he found a patient devoid of a sense of self. In 1880, Cotard introduced a newly identified medical condition to the world. He called it “delire des negations,” or negation delirium. Essentially, he had discovered a condition in which a person thought, “I think, therefore I’m not.”
Remember when the United States stock market crashed a few years back? You know, the implosion famously featuring credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations? Does it seem strange to you that all those experts who couldn’t predict the economic collapse are still on television giving advice and offering predictions?
The people who were wrong continue to work because they provide you with an illusion of knowledge, a belief that the market can be understood by one person, and that person’s understanding can become your understanding. They continue to claim insight into chaotic, impossibly complex nebulae of shifting data, and they continue to profess powers of divination even though research shows they are slightly less reliable than a coin toss. They can still get paid to squawk because they continue to make their claims with confidence. No one wants a sage who deals in maybes.
Take a look at those bicycles at the top of this post. Which one would you say is the most accurate portrayal of a real bike? Psychologist Rebecca Lawson once put together a study that revealed even though most people are very familiar with bicycles and know how to ride them, they can’t draw one to save their lives, and they can’t even pick a proper one out of a lineup. Despite this, most people rate their knowledge of how a bicycle works as being very good. Remember that when someone claims to understand something a bit more complicated, like a sub-prime mortgage. (This is a picture of a real bicycle.)
The video above demonstrates the Monkey Business Illusion. It’s designed to fool both people who have and have not seen the selective attention test, a video on YouTube with over 5 million views.
The first post at You Are Not So Smart was about inattentional blindness. I had seen the selective attention test and the Test Your Awareness videos that were making the rounds on YouTube, and I knew inattentional blindness would make a great first topic. It is astounding to realize you’ve been lying to yourself about what gets into your brain through your eyeballs.
What is inattentional blindness? It’s missing something right in front of your eyes because you are paying attention to something else. What makes that a great topic for You Are Not So Smart is that this blindness is always part of experience, but you can spend a lifetime without ever knowing it happens. You tend to have an intuition and a belief that you see everything you are facing, and if something out of the ordinary was to happen, it would instantly grab your attention. Not so. Science has revealed you are basically blind to that which you are not attentive, yet your conscious experience and your memories don’t reflect this. That’s the epiphany that slams into your brain when you watch the original invisible gorilla video.