Blame your parents when the monsters get you

Cover of “Entangled Minds” by Dean Radin. Paraview Pocket Books, New York, 2006.

When I was a kid, I saw little monsters in my bedroom. No one seemed to react when I said as much, though. Most kids see monsters. Actually, it’s probably a little weird for a kid not to see scary stuff in the dark. But if you do, your parents simply tell you what you’re seeing is not real. They might have to keep telling you for a few weeks, months, maybe years, but eventually you’ll stop seeing them, and you’ll grow up to be a normal adult. You’ll go to school, get a job, get married, have kids and tell those kids the little monsters they see aren’t real. If you don’t keep the cycle going, your kids could grow up to be adults who see monsters, and adults who see monsters don’t have it easy when it comes to things like getting a job and finding a partner. So this continual process—this shaping of consensual reality—is good and healthy. Except for one potential little problem—if there ever are real monsters, we won’t be able to see them. We’d be blind to them—not eye blind, but brain blind. And that’s the problem Lucas, the hero of Mantis, has. Even though he can see everything that’s in plain sight—which, as we saw in the previous post, is actually a remarkable genius—he still only sees what his brain accepts as part of consensual reality. It’s this weakness—a weakness that all well-adapted humans possess—that the enemies in Mantis prey upon.

Dean Radin, an award winning scientist who has devoted his career to the study of psychic phenomenon, covers how this brain blindness happens in his bestselling book Entangled Minds. The phenomenon at work is something called latent inhibition, which, as Radin puts it, “refers to an unconscious brain process that degrades our ability to pay attention to stimuli that have had no consequences in the past.” He goes on:

Imagine, for example, that Pavlov’s dogs were exposed to ringing bells without being fed. The dogs will quickly learn to ignore ringing bells because those sounds had no meaningful consequence (i.e. no association with food). Now, Pavlov decides to train the same dogs to salivate whenever they hear a bell by ringing the bells and feeding them. Unfortunately, these dogs had already learned to ignore bells, so they’re going to have a hard time unlearning the old association. Dogs that hadn’t previously heard the irrelevant bells will quickly learn to salivate. This “hard time unlearning” is due to latent inhibition.

That’s what Lucas is up against in Mantis—unlearning the reality he’s been taught all his life to believe in. And that’s no easy feat.

The phenomenon of latent inhibition strikes Lucas hard after he lands in Lisbon just as the Nazis storm through Belgium. In the excerpt below, Lucas, who has just seen the Black Suits kidnap his P. I. partner Olivia, seeks the help of Nick Cap, a Frenchman who seems to know the way to help Lucas.

Half a mile up the slope, I spot a sign for the Hotel Baleia hanging on a slim building tucked between two restaurants. I charge through the lobby, huffing, and ask the concierge for Nick Cap. He calls Nick, says a few words in a foreign language and then hangs up and tells me in broken English Nick’s room number.

Seconds later, I’m standing in a dingy hallway, banging on Nick’s door. He opens it swiftly, a pile of clothes balanced on his palm.

“The Black Suits just kidnapped Olivia,” I say.

“Oh, Lucas, I am sorry.” He steps inside his tiny room and places the clothes into an open suitcase on his bed.

“Are they going to kill her?”

“Explain what happened.”

After I relay the story, he says, “I do not know, Lucas. They could have killed her on the street. They did not. That is good—for now. They only kill if they have to, so it depends if they decide in the end that her death is necessary or not.”

“Where are they taking her?”

“I imagine they will take her to their closest headquarters.”

“Where’s that?”

“I do not know.” He closes the halves of his suitcase together. “If I knew, I would go there.”

“You have to help me find it.”

He lifts his suitcase off the bed onto the floor beside him. “Lucas, I was just about to leave for Casablanca to find the Black Suits.”

“We have to find Olivia first.”

He stares at me with his good eye. “Tell me, Lucas, when your father went missing, what did you think happened?”

“Nick, we don’t have time for this now—I need your help fast.”

“I need you to answer the question first.”

“I had no idea what happened.”

“But there were books, your grandfather’s books that pointed to the answer—is that not so?”

“Nick, please—”

“You saw the books, didn’t you?”

“I saw the books, yes.”

“But you never considered the possibility of other worlds, other dimensions.”

I let out a breath. The clock is ticking. “No sane person does.”

“It is not a question of sanity, Lucas. It is a question of what is real, what is truth. When you think of sanity, you miss things. You missed where your father went. You miss who these Black Suits are. You think you can fight them with a gun and regular bullets. You discovered the truth the hard way—you lost Olivia because of your closed mind.”

My teeth crunch together. “You asked for my father’s watch for some magic bullets, what the hell was I supposed to think?”

“You were supposed to open your mind. I am not, what you call, a snake-oil salesman. I offered you a necessary bargain. The universe works by balance, by bargain, by trade—like the laws of thermodynamics, but at the deepest, metaphysical level. Your grandfather knew about that. There is no… what you call free lunch in this world, or any world, Lucas. Your father’s watch for the method to kill your father’s killer—that was the trade. Without it, even my gold bullets would be no better than what you shot from your gun today.”

“I should have listened to you, yes. I’m sorry. I want to trade for those gold bullets now.”

“You need more than my bullets, Lucas. You need to open your mind. You possess a certain genius—a great memory with extraordinary powers of perception, just like your father and your grandfather. But you are blind, still—by certain prejudices, by certain preconceived notions of the world.”

“I saw my bullets disappear into that bastard’s face. My mind is open now.”

“It is not. And until it is, you’re not ready. You want to rush, Lucas. I understand, but that won’t help you get Olivia back. Your father rushed too. ’e did not wait for me to teach him all I know. He went to the Perisphere without me. He was too impatient. Maybe I could have done more to warn your father, but I will not let you make the same mistake.”

“Then help me get ready, help me open my mind.”

“Okay, Lucas, describe the Black Suit’s face.”

“Gaunt. Sunken pale cheeks. Small dark eyes.”

He shakes his head. “That is what a closed mind sees. You must first understand that as human beings, we perceive everything through five senses. Personally, I believe we have other senses. But whatever you believe, it is true we always filter out a large portion of what we perceive. There is simply too much data. As a Nomi, you, fortunately, do not have this particular limitation. Your brain has the capability to cope with a great deal of information. ’owever, you suffer, as most humans do, from another factor. And that, Lucas, is that we tend to accept only information which conforms to our preconceived notions of the world, shaped by science, by culture, by fear. Children see all manner of strange things—ghosts and so on—and when they report these things to adults we tell them they’re not real. We shape the reality of the child to the acceptable norms. In time, the child learns to filter out whatever does not fit the norms. You must rid yourself of the prejudices you have, of what you expect to see when you see a Black Suit.”

“What should I have seen?”

He pulls a piece of paper from an inside pocket of his jacket and unfolds it on the bed. It’s a pen-and-ink rendition of a revolting monster, a black creature oozing slime that looks partly humanoid and partly like a praying mantis. It has claw-like appendages like Olivia described and its triangular head, with two massive hypnotically dark eyes, tapers to a terrifying chaos of saw-edged mandibles.

“This is what the Black Suits really are, Lucas,” Nick is saying. “Dictyoptera—a unique, supernatural species. Like other creatures in the order of dictyoptera, such as the praying mantis, camouflage is their defense mechanism, but with these dictyoptera, the camouflage is super advanced. A technology unknown to man. It is bullet-proof also—against normal bullets.”

I look at Nick, can’t speak. I can tell he sees the recognition on my face.

“You see something familiar here, don’t you?”

I hesitate before saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this. But I’ve seen hundreds of black mantises in these visions I get at night. I’ve had them for years back in my world and a few here too. Some of the insects are regular sized, some larger.”

Nick’s eyes light up—finally he is getting somewhere with me. “At night when you dream, Lucas, your mind is open. It shows you the deeper reality of the world, things your conscious mind has filtered out. Your subconscious mind must have detected these dictyoptera somewhere and then shown you in your dreams a representation of what they really are with images of mantises. That makes sense, because a mantis insect is the closest norm you have for these dictyoptera. It is a good sign that you’ve had these dreams, Lucas. It gives me hope that your mind could be opened.”

Your Brain is Conspiring Against You: the reality it won’t let you see

Lucas, the hero of Mantis, possesses a unique genius—the ability to see everything that is in plain sight. If you don’t think that’s a special ability, spend the next minute taking this test:

If you missed the obvious, you’ve got lots of company. About half the people who take this test miss what’s right there in plain sight. Those who do see the obvious often miscount the number of passes. If you counted the passes correctly and saw the gorilla, you’re pretty special, but chances are you would probably still fail the much more complicated version of the test that Lucas takes in the opening of Mantis—excerpted a few paragraphs below.

The video test above is known as The Invisible Gorilla and was conducted by Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University. Inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness are the terms used to describe our failure to notice some stimulus that is in plain sight.

As the Invisible Gorilla test shows, our brains simply won’t let us perceive everything before our eyes. We either focus on the reality of the passes or the reality of the gorilla. We can’t do both—something’s gotta go. The implication, of course, is that in the midst of everything we do—driving to work, walking through the mall, eating dinner at a restaurant—huge chunks of reality are passing straight through us, completely unnoticed.

But are we only missing commonly accepted reality? We all accept—though for some of us only during the second viewing—that someone dressed in a gorilla suit did indeed really walk through the basketball players. But is it possible we’re still missing something? Not just in this video, but wherever we are. Are we constantly missing things our brain refuses to accept no matter where we apply our focus or our attention? In Mantis these are questions that Lucas is forced to reckon with as his race to rescue his beloved takes him deeper and deeper into strangeness. More on this in a future blog. For now, an excerpt from when Lucas takes the perception test:

At nine o’clock I’m sitting beside Nathan at a long table with ten other account managers in a dark boardroom watching a video clip designed to test our leadership abilities. On a large HD wall screen, two teams—red shirts and white shirts—scramble around a soccer field. Each team is passing a ball between its members—fast passes, long ones, short ones, looping ones. We’re supposed to count the number of passes the red team makes. While I’m trying to do that, Nathan’s leg is vibrating spastically beside me, not just because the test is difficult, but because just prior to it, our instructor announced that due to a restructuring plan only one director position is now available. The others around the table, chewing fingernails and shifting endlessly in their seats, aren’t any less terrified they might fail to advance up the corporate ladder.

A minute into the video, something strange happens on screen. I watch it while continuing to count the passes. A little while later, the scene stops, freezing both balls in mid pass.

Our instructor—a bald and muscular overpaid consultant sheathed indecently in a snug turtleneck—flips the lights back on, retracts the blinds. We all narrow our eyes at the sudden rush of sunlight flooding into the room. The instructor takes a seat at the head of the table and asks us to enter the number of completed passes we counted on the electronic tablets in front of us. Nathan enters thirty-three. I enter thirty-six and kick him under the table. He glances over, copies my answer. I clear my tablet and re-enter twenty-eight before submitting it. Nathan sees what I’m doing and kicks me back, but it’s too late.

The instructor tells us the correct answer, thirty-six, and that only two people in the room got it right. Nathan shoots a confused glance in my direction.

“But,” the instructor says, “that’s not what this test is really about.” He wants to know if we saw anything out of the ordinary happen on the field.

Around the table, heads jerk back, swivel around. I tap out fox on the touch-screen keypad and let Nathan see. In my periphery, I catch his eyes bulging. I give him another kick. With a hesitant hand he copies my entry. Again I erase my answer, press enter, submitting a blank.

After our answers or non-answers are in, the instructor checks his screen, where our data is compiled. His brow knots up, and he looks over at Nathan, squints at him. Then he stands and tells us we just went through a variation on a standard psychology experiment that tests perceptual blindness—the human tendency to miss things. In today’s version, which is intentionally harder than the usual tests, often only one person in ten sees the strange occurrence, frequently no one does. Today, two people saw what everyone else missed. The instructor then reruns the video at a slower speed and this time no one misses a fox running into the middle of the field. Gasps of incredulity and nervous laughter erupt around the room as the fox weaves between the players’ legs, running past the ball at one point, before trotting off.

“I know it’s impossible to believe that most of you missed this, but you did. And in business,” the instructor says, “you need to keep your eye on the ball, but you also need to see the fox sneaking into your marketplace. We’re looking for a leader with that ability.” He then explains that one of the people who saw the fox missed a number of the passes, which is typical. “If your eye’s not on the ball,” he says, “it’s a little easier to spot the fox.” He further explains that what isn’t typical for this test is the ability to count the passes accurately and see the fox, because attention to the task is what causes the blindness. Of the thousands who have been tested, only three people have ever demonstrated that ability. Today, a fourth person enters that elite group. Everyone looks around the room with jealous eyes wondering who he’s talking about. Then the instructor asks everybody to leave, except Nathan.

I tap Nathan on the back as I get to my feet. He looks up at me, sheepish, speechless, his mouth hanging open. “You deserve it, bud,” I say. As I file out of the room with the rest of my peers, I’m struck by the irony of our instructor’s own perceptual blindness, his inability to spot our cheating right under his nose. But it never would have occurred to a man like him that in the competition for a promotion one candidate might sacrifice himself for another.