Wednesday, October 1, 2008

That's not what I meant

Changing appearances was quite an easy act for the Italian stage artist, Leopaldo Fregoli; an immortal, who can frazzle Fregoli, is Vishnu in Indian mythology. Leopaldo could don so many guises that a typical symptom was named after him. Fregoli’s syndrome --though rare-- is seen in those who think those around them are not several different people, but one individual disguised as many. This may sound bizarre, but that’s how a damaged brain can come to terms with its inability to identify numerous people around. Now reverse is the case with people suffering from Capgras’ syndrome. They have an “identity crisis” so to say. After a stroke scathes their brain, they believe that their loved ones are replaced by impostors. And invent stories like aliens abducted them or someone has conspired against them. But don’t mistake these patients as one of their kind; politicians irregularly display Capgras’ symptoms. In all these cases, all evidence is to the contrary. But still the affected person confabulates to explain the weirdness, oblivious to the absurdity.

Confabulation is about finding explanations for our experiences and conditions that have little relation to what actually has happened. Patients may think that parents visited them yesterday, whereas they would have actually died few years back. Memories are massively lost and that creates a major abyss which they are not able to cross. So the brain unleashes a Plan B for at least building a bridge across this abyss. Invent stories that maybe false but that doesn’t matter. Because the brain is a nearly-1.4kg jelly that strives to maintain order out of chaos. Consider what Timothy Wilson at University of Virginia Charlottesville and his colleague Robert Nisbett tested out. They showed people four identical items of clothing and asked them to pick the best in quality. It is known that people tend to subconsciously prefer the rightmost object in a sequence, if given no other choice criteria. Sure enough, about four out of five participants did favor the garment on the right. Yet when asked why they made that choice, nobody gave position as a reason. It was always about the fineness of the weave, richer color or superior texture. This suggests that while we may make our decisions subconsciously, we rationalize them in our consciousness, and the way we do so may be pure fiction, or confabulation.

Confabulation, as I see it, doesn’t seem to be too uncommon then. Consider another phenomenon called Buyer’s remorse. Desiring an expensive item and buying it doesn’t end the pleasure game there. After buying what they thought to be expensive, they may end up thinking that it wasn’t worth that much, or that the purchase was too impulsive; or that others have bought the same goods at lesser costs. So negative evidence piles up. But their beliefs don’t really swing like pendulum then. Most times, they refuse to accommodate the new evidence or reach the other extreme of giving up on the purchase altogether.

Changing appearances, as Fregoli did, called as quick-change is quite common with animals. Especially important for marine animals who got to play safe from predators. Octopus over-qualifies in this regard: it is smart, but not really intelligent, at duping predators. It performs what is called the moving-rock trick. It first alters its body to give it the appearance of a rock – a process called camouflage. Then it doesn’t stop there, it even moves. Actually when the prey moves, a marine predator can hunt it out. But this doesn’t happen in the case of an octopus, because it matches the speed of its motion with the speed of light in the surrounding water. That virtually makes it invisible to the predator, which thinks the rock is moving with it in water. Such cunning camouflage wouldn’t have evolved overnight. But by years of trial and error, sticking to evolution’s basic bottom-line: be good at it or get better of it.

So my guess is that as camouflage saves animals, confabulation salvages humans from embarrassment. Not to fib the world, but because there’s too much information out there imposing on us. And as we can’t accommodate all this knowledge, gaps arise. We try to fill these gaps with the nearest guesses. And this is not something too weird but very much wired into our brains. We may better not curse evolution for this.

No comments: