Self Delusion and the Martian Test


Have you ever been asked by a novice to explain something that you know or have done for so many years that it has become second nature? How did you do? Did the novice understand your explanation?

Sometimes we can become blinded to the complexity of an activity because we are so familiar with it. The classic example is driving a car. This is a complex task when you are learning, but the complexity quickly fades into the background as you notch up the hours behind the wheel. And as a fairly experienced driver, I know how easy it is to become not just deluded about the difficulty of the task, but more dangerously, about my own skill and prowess on the road.

But it isn’t just complex activities like driving that suffer from the ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ syndrome. We can be deluded about even the simplest of activities. Most of us get to the point where we are pretty much deluded (and this is FM’s word) about what we are doing with our bodies, and how we are doing it. We think we are doing the bicep curl like the instructor; we are actually throwing our chest forward and raising our shoulders. We think we are sitting upright; we are actually rotating our pelvis backwards and hunching our shoulders. We think we are flexing at the hips; in reality our hips are little troubled and our spines do the work.

It sounds like a problem of lack of awareness, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. If anatomy authors Depopoulos and Ibernagl are right, there’s no point trying to work on our awareness (improving our sensitivity). Our bodies are brilliant at picking up information from nerves and sending it to the brain. The difficulty comes in how the information is prioritised. So FM was remarkably accurate when he said in 1910

We must admit not only that there is a failure to register accurately in the sensory appreciation, but also that the fault is unrecorded in the conscious mind. And it is for this reason that the pupil must be given a new and correct guiding and controlling centre.*


Talk to a Martian 

FM sees the solution to this whole sorry mess as being to improve our ability to conceive of an activity and carry it out as we conceived it. So here are my tips for beginning along this road.

  • Don’t assume. We think that because we have walked or sat or stood since toddlerhood, we know how it is done. What if we really don’t know exactly how to do these simplest of activities?
  • Get some knowledge. Look at anatomy books. Watch other people and see how they do things. Look at yourself in the mirror. Arm yourself with knowledge and observation.
  • The Martian test. Try to explain the act of sitting as if you were teaching the activity to a Martian who had never done it before. What would the Martian need to know?

Our deluded sense of ourselves feeds on our assumptions, our lack of knowledge, and our belief that we ‘know’ how to do an activity. Fight these beliefs, and you’re a long way down the path to FM’s new “guiding and controlling centre.”

What will you say to the Martian?

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.59.
** Photo from stock.xchng