— Charlie Munger
I will start my summary with a general observation that helps explain what follows. This observation is grounded in what we know about social insects. The limitations inherent in evolution’s development of the nervous-system cells that control behavior are beautifully demonstrated by these insects, which often have a mere 100,000 or so cells in their entire nervous systems, compared to man’s multiple billions of cells in his brain alone.
Each ant, like each human, is composed of a living physical structure plus behavioral algorithms in its nerve cells. In the ant’s case, the behavioral algorithms are few in number and almost entirely genetic in origin. The ant learns a little behavior from experiences, but mostly it merely responds to ten or so stimuli with a few simple responses programmed into its nervous system by its genes.
Naturally, the simple ant behavior system has extreme limitations because of its limited nerve system repertoire. For instance, one type of ant, when it smells a pheromone given off by a dead ant’s body in the hive, immediately responds by cooperating with other ants in carrying the dead body out of the hive. And Harvard’s great E.O. Wilson performed one of the best psychology experiments ever done when he painted dead-ant pheromone on a live ant. Quite naturally; the other ants dragged this useful live ant out of the hive even though it kicked and otherwise protested throughout the entire process. Such is the brain of the ant. It has a simple program of responses that generally work out alright, but which are imprudently used by rote in many cases.
Another type of ant demonstrates that the limited brain of ants can be misled by circumstances as well as by clever manipulation from other creatures. The brain of this ant contains a simple behavioral program, that directs the ant, when walking, to follow the ant ahead, and when these ants stumble into walking in a big circle, they sometimes walk round and round until they perish.
It seems obvious, to me at least, that the human brain must often operate counterproductively just like the ant’s, from unavoidable oversimplicity in its mental process, albeit usually in trying to solve problems more difficult than those faced by ants that don’t have to design airplanes.
The perception system of man clearly demonstrates just such an unfortunate outcome. Man is easily fooled, either by the cleverly thought out manipulation of man, by circumstances occurring by accident, or by very effective manipulation practices that man has stumbled into during “practice evolution” and kept in place because they work so well. One such outcome is caused by a quantum effect in human perception. If stimulus is kept below a certain level, it does not get through. And, for this reason, a magician was able to make the Statue of Liberty disappear after a certain amount of magician lingo expressed in the dark. The audience was not aware that it was sitting on a platform that was rotating so slowly, below man’s sensory threshold, that no one could feel the acceleration implicit in the considerable rotation. When a surrounding curtain was then opened in the place on the platform where the Statue had earlier appeared, it seemed to have disappeared.
And even when perception does get through to man’s brain, it is often misweighted, because what is registered in perception is in shockingness of apparent contrast, not the standard scientific units that make possible science and good engineering.
A magician demonstrates this sort of contrast-based error in your nervous system when he removes your wristwatch without your feeling it. As he does this, he applies pressure of touch on your wrist that you would sense if it was the only pressure of touch you were experiencing. But he has concurrently applied other intense pressure of touch on your body, but not on your wrist, “swamping” the wrist pressure by creating a high-contrast touch pressure elsewhere. This high contrast takes the wrist pressure below perception.
Some psychology professors like to demonstrate the inadequacy of contrast-based perception by having students put one hand in a bucket of hot water and one hand in a bucket of cold water. They are then suddenly asked to remove both hands and place them in a single bucket of room-temperature water. Now, with both hands in the same water, one hand feels as if it has just been put in cold water and the other hand feels as if it has just been placed in hot water. When one thus sees perception so easily fooled by mere contrast, where a simple temperature gauge would make no error, and realizes that cognition mimics perception in being misled by mere contrast, he is well on the way toward understanding, not only how magicians fool one, but also how life will fool one. This can occur, through deliberate human manipulation or otherwise, if one doesn’t take certain precautions against often-wrong effects from generally useful tendencies in his perception and cognition.”