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We can only understand ourselves through experiments on other people

The only technique that has ever been successful in explaining the world around us is experimentation. Scientists drop things, pass electricity through them, heat them up, magnetise them, and shoot subatomic particles at them. They do the same thing again and again and then they do it again from a different starting point, at a different temperature or at a different time of day.

Humans are rather intricate objects, but we too can only be understood through experimentation. To understand the heart you have to cut one up. To understand our cells you dye them, bung them under a microscope, and insert things into them. Our minds aren’t exempt from the rule. Introspection is flawed.

We can’t tell why we do what we do by reflecting on what we’re thinking. We can’t even work out why we’re thinking what we’re thinking by reflecting on what we’re thinking. Only experiments can tell us why we are the way we are, why we think what we think and do what we do. We need scientists to prod people, flash subliminal messages at them, trick them, scare them and make them fall in love. Then we need them to do the same things to other people at a different temperature, in a different language, beside another bridge, on a different day of the week and wearing different clothes. If they don’t, we’ll never understand ourselves.

Some of these manipulations might seem far-fetched: surely they couldn't possibly change our behaviour. But this is just another sign that we don't think the way we imagine we think: on this blog we'll find that all of them change what we do, even and especially, when we think they don't.

For more insights into the quirky way your brain works, read Chris Paley's Unthink (Amazon UK link).


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