Our Brains Are Not Mirrors

Humans are social creatures who need to interact for survival and meaning. Being part of a society requires that we take actions, behave in conjunction with others, make decisions, and have opinions about the world we inhabit. This puts us in difficult positions. We have to justify our decisions, actions, behaviors, and beliefs, but our brains are not mirrors of reality. They don’t reflect a perfect and objective view of the world to our inner mind, and we don’t always realize how imperfect the information we act on can be.


In Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “When we look around us, we think we perceive the world outside. But we don’t. Our brains are not mirrors. They have insufficient information to mirror the world.” We only perceive a limited slice of reality. We only absorb and process a limited amount of information. Our understanding of the true nature of reality can never be complete enough to say we truly understand the world.


In my opinion, this should lead us to be more cognitively humble. We should recognize that we can’t know everything and be more willing to question what we know, how we know what we know, and what we don’t and cannot ever know. In reality, few of us do this on a consistent basis. It is uncomfortable to live with uncertainty and a constant doubt that you know enough to take decisive action, to behave a certain way, or to hold certain beliefs. It is far more comfortable to believe that you know how and why the world is the way it is.


Ultimately, because we are social creatures and because we need to interact for our survival, we have to make decisions. We cannot question our decisions forever, or we would never get out of bed and would starve. We have to take action but this doesn’t mean we have to behave as though we know everything. We can still make it through life recognizing that we rely on rules of thumb, heuristics, and judgements based on imperfect information. We can question what we know and be willing to update our beliefs when we have reason to change our minds. It is important that we think critically about what we believe, and avoid simply believing that things are good or right because we happen to benefit from them now. Those instances are precisely the time when we should be the most willing to question our beliefs. Our brains are not mirrors, they don’t tell us exactly what is, and we should remember that and be willing to make changes in our thoughts, beliefs, and actions based on continual learning.

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