Reliance upon the validity of external authorities such as science, government, religion, magic, and even paranoia is a technique people use for maintaining a sense of control over situations which in fact are beyond their control. This human trait appears to be part of the species’s genetic heritage, and permits individuals to live with a lower level of stress, and in relative harmony with one another. We can occasionally see other people’s coping mechanisms in action, and wonder why they base their personal actions and beliefs upon obviously incorrect authorities.
In an attempt to explain this human failing, Adam Galinsky and Jennifer Whitson published a report in the current Science magazine with experimental results of people looking at very randomly grainy pictures, some of which had difficult to see images embedded into them and some of which were purely grainy with no image at all. The experiment was to put people into various stressful situations beforehand, and observe if that affected their perceptions of the grainy pictures. They found that when stressed people tended to see more images where there were only random dots.
That was reported as being new science, and it is science in the sense that the experiment can be conducted by other people to see if they obtain similar results. However, the underlying idea certainly isn’t new and 400 years ago Shakespeare published a little play on this subject which many people claimed to have watched called The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The entire story line is based on a young man who is greatly stressed, and his attempts to verify what is objective truth, and what is his own mental projection. The main character Hamlet shows how easy it is to misconstrue, and project onto obviously random phenomena a pattern as in: …
Act 3, Scene 2 –
HAMLET – Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS – By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET – Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS – It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET – Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS – Very like a whale.
Act 5, Scene 2 –
OSRIC – Sweet lord, if your lordship were at leisure, I
should impart a thing to you from his majesty.
HAMLET – I will receive it, sir, with all diligence of
spirit. Put your bonnet to his right use; ’tis for the head.
OSRIC – I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
HAMLET – No, believe me, ’tis very cold; the wind is
OSRIC – It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
HAMLET – But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my
OSRIC – Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry,–as
’twere,–I cannot tell how. But, my lord, his
majesty bade me signify to you that he has laid a
great wager on your head: sir, this is the matter,–
Whitson: “People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances,” Whitson said. “This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order—even imaginary order.”
Shakespeare understood this problem which Galinsky and Whitson test with their experiments, and he goes on to the obvious next steps, which are: How can we protect ourselves from projecting our own thoughts and biases upon data, and furthermore how can we trick others into revealing their hidden thoughts and biases?
Act 2, Scene 2 –
HAMLET – I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks;
I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
In this quote we may perceive that Hamlet understands this problem of loss of control, and projection of hidden mental bias upon random data. In the play the material isn’t entirely random however, because Hamlet intends to seed The Murder of Gonzalgo with a dozen lines of easily misinterpreted innuendo aimed at the current King. However, to prevent his own bias from clouding his judgment he enlists a second person, Horatio, to corroborate his personal observations.
Act 3, Scene 2, line 72 –
HAMLET -to Horatio: – Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.–Something too much of this.–
There is a play to-night before the king;
One scene of it comes near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father’s death:
I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy. Give him heedful note;
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.
Here we see Hamlet soliciting Horatio’s help in objectively perceiving the King’s response to an innuendo in the play’s performance. This proves his awareness of the problem of perception being distorted by one’s own imagination, and a way to help prevent improper actions being based on improperly distorted facts. From the opening words of this play till the conclusion it is about perceptions, and how to verify and interpret them. The modern scientific method is useful for proving in a testable way the very rudiments of that which has been known for a long time. Shakespeare goes even further in proving the depth of Hamlet’s sanity with his ability to predict what other people are going to say and do which is mentioned in the blog Hamlet was not weak but powerfully conflicted and very sane.
These needs for clear understanding have been with humanity from the beginning, and that need has been partially fulfilled by religion for many unknowable things and partially fulfilled by science for knowable things, and partially controlled by government for public things. When these institutions fail people turn to magic to support their need for understanding and control. When all else fails they turn to what is generally termed fantasy and paranoia which twists the facts around to a place where it appears that things are under their control. At its most basic level this human ability is used to distort the perception of reality itself into comprehensible and manipulable forms.