Why our brains will always get the better of us
One of my favourite books of all time is Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’, in which a group of bored book publishers create, ‘The Plan’. The plan is a made up concoction of occult ideas and theories, with just about enough coherence to make it all plausible. Their problems begin when a group of esoteric nutters get wind of the plan and think that it is real. If you haven’t read it and have a penchant for deep thinking fiction, it’s worth a squizz.
It reflects beautifully just how people can so easily get caught up in conspiracy theories. Most of the time, they rationalise facts and events to suit their theories. Not that they could ever appreciate all the facts, but a judicious bit of cognitive bias and selective ignorance can go a long way.
This is the key to good filmmaking. Humans are wired to fill in the gaps. Shown two disparate shots, the brain will try to rationalise the juxtaposition and find meaning. Our brains are, as David Eagleman points out in his book, Incognito, little more than prediction engines. String a few shots together, and our brains think they have enough information and context to anticipate what happens next. After all, they are frequently right about small things, so why shouldn’t they be able to accurately predict more complex sequences of events? I suspect this is why crime and mystery are typically at the top of the bestseller lists.
The problem is that it’s too easy to make two plus two equal twelvety. Good filmmakers and writers play on this and throw enough red herrings, or withhold just enough information, for us to get it wrong until the end.
Most of the time, in real life, there is no rational force or reason for things to be as they are. But we will invent reasons for something to have happened, or attribute them to specific people or agendas. Most of the time, there is no way an individual could ever have that much influence on complex sets of events. Even a group in a position of some authority will run into hundreds of road blocks, sceptics, and naysayers.
But our brains can’t appreciate that level of detail. So we weave life into stories, and confuse plausibility with the truth. Usually this is harmless, but sometimes it can have catastrophic consequences, as the heroes of Foucault’s Pendulum find out.
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