Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Useful Obviously False Beliefs

"You've got to believe!" That's the advice professional magician Mark Mitton gave at his recent talk in the CUNY Cognitive Science Symposium. Here's the idea: in order for an illusion to be believable to the audience, the magician has to believe it too. This is, of course, puzzling for all of the sorts of reasons familiar to philosophers debating doxastic voluntarism and self-deception. How do you make yourself believe something that you know you don't?

I've been thinking about something similar to self-deception since Mark's remark. There's a kind of advice given in all sorts of areas of human performance, music and sports to name two, that involves believing (or pretending?) something obviously absurd but is efficacious nonetheless. Here's a quick list:


  • Vocal coaches tell their singers stuff like "breath out of your back" or "quit singing out of the top of your head." Or so I hear.
  • In martial arts, if you are going to punch someone really hard in the solar plexus, it helps to aim for their back, as if your fist can just bore right through.
  • In ball sports (you know, sports with balls?) there's this stuff about "following through" which I guess is something like throwing the ball after it's already been thrown. I dunno, I hate sports.
  • Acting? Maybe this is like the magic thing? I dunno, I'm not an actor (but I've played one on TV).


Anyway, hammer-heads are hereby invited to multiply examples and submit pointers to work done in the relevant areas. That would be awesome. You'd better believe it!