Narrative illusions

Our brain contains lots of neurons and can do great things. I can read, write and speak fluently in two languages made of tens of thousands of words. Millions of human beings can do that, and much more. But our brains have also clear limits. For example, despite the fact that I have advanced degrees in Mathematics, I still take a small pause when I need to compute the tip (15%) at a restaurant, especially if I have had wine or beer. And I sometimes get the result wrong. My computer could do a billion such computations per second. I could do no more than a handful.

There is overwhelming evidence that our brains do not see the world as it is, but rather they only build a limited model. This is clear when you watch optical illusions. When trying to understand history, technology or your own organization, you often resort to narratives. We build stories. “Steve Jobs became CEO, then he made Apple great again through his charisma.” “Barack Obama took power, rebooted the economy and gave the Americans hope again.”

And then you get “narrative illusions”. Was Apple turned around single-handedly by Steve Jobs? Those who thought so predicted that his death would mean the end of Apple. Yet Apple has continued to grow just as well without Steve Jobs. If you sold your stock when Steve Jobs died, you lost money.

Narratives are hacks to help us cope with the world. Nobody can truly understand how Tesla semi-autonomous cars came along. It is complicated. There is capitalism. There is technological progress… There are thousands of engineers working throughout the world in a distributed matter… How can we comprehend how it all came together? So our puny monkey brains just conclude that this one guy (Elon Musk) did it. He came in, said “I want smart electric cars” and silly engineers went out and built it. End of story.

We often sum up Google by saying “two kids invented a magical algorithm called PageRank and became billionaires”. That’s not even 1% of the story, but we can understand this narrative and it suffices.

We should not, we cannot reject narratives. It is how our brain has to deal with the world. We should, however, be aware that these stories are not the same as reality. Elon Musk does not build next-generation rockets while he programs autonomous cars. Bill Gates did not write Windows 95. Steve Jobs did not invent the tablet, the mouse, the modern computer or even the smartphone. Barack Obama did not bring peace and prosperity to the world.

We hear a lot about how computers cannot think like we do or see like we do. But, one day, our descendants might outgrow most of our narrative illusions. They might look back our puny attempts to understand the world and think “how could they survive?”.

Credit: This blog post was inspired by a Facebook exchange with Seb Paquet and Philippe Beaudoin.

Daniel Lemire, "Narrative illusions," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 12, 2016.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “Narrative illusions”

  1. “But, one day, our descendants might outgrow most of our narrative illusions.”

    THAT is a narrative illusion.

    1. If I tell a story about the future, I don’t think it qualifies as a narrative illusion in the sense that we know it is merely a story. We both know that I cannot see in the future.

      1. I happen to disagreee slightly.

        It would be good argument if the the mind process was not the same :
        Even if you know that you cannot know the future, you merely act “as if”. Otherwise the story would have less point to be told.

        In other words, if two people were talking a Chess position on board and exchanging thoughts and feelings about a kind of move. At one point someone may tell the other : “well, it is not as if we are playing an actual game”. The other could easily reply, “yes, but are we not engaged into the same perspective as if it was a real game : a battle between White and Black pieces ? If it was not true, then what is just the point of all this exchange ?”

  2. False narrative, “Barack Obama took power, rebooted the economy and gave the Americans hope again.”

  3. This post reminds me of a good book: Black Swan. It deals with, among other things, how hard it is to predict the futur and how we fool ourselves using narrative fallacy about past events.

  4. The greatest narrative illusion is that “you” exist.
    The thousands of verbal and nonverbal references to this “you” from birth eventually creates the illusion of “you”. And henceforth “you” will struggle to maintain this illusion and suffer, because that struggle is suffering.

    The narrative illusion of the “self”, who is dominant today, could be called a cultural narrative illusion, much like the narrative illusion of “God” was stronger in the middle ages.

Leave a Reply to Daniel Lemire Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may subscribe to this blog by email.