Learning about self-deception is important for all people today. That’s because many of our problems, both as individuals and as a society, are rooted in self-deception, and many of the ways in which others abuse us relate to our inherent tendency to self-deceive. We can overcome these problems, and have a decent chance at long-term survival as a species, only if we learn about such limitations, and strive to control them. One great way to rapidly learn about self-deception, and other forms of deception, is to learn about the events of September 11th.
In order to understand the extreme self-deception surrounding 9/11, we should first look at how people deceive themselves. There are quite a few ways, in fact, and a good book that describes some of them is Brain Fiction: Self Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation, by William Hirstein. In this well-referenced book, Hirstein describes a continuum of human conditions that relate to self-deception, spanning from clinical confabulation to clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These conditions can be seen in terms of a gradual increase in “tension”, or amount of knowledge that a person has about the fact that he or she is making false claims. People who have these conditions are described as follows.
- Clinical confabulator
- Self-deceived person without tension
- Normal confabulator
- Neutral normal person
- Self-deceived person with tension
- Lying person
- Obsessive-compulsive person
- Clinical OCD sufferer
Hirstein explains that normal thinking patterns involve the creation of multiple mental representations for any given situation, which can be either image-like or concept-like in nature. Those representations that are false, or that do not fit with our sense of reality, are culled out before being articulated, by a checking process. Sometimes these critical checking processes do not work, and the affected person can make false statements easily and with full belief that what he or she is stating is, in fact, true. In those cases, the person is said to be confabulating. But when the checking processes do work, and for whatever reasons false claims are still made, tension is created and the person is considered to be self-deceived.
Hirstein’s book details the fascinating research that supports this representation/checking theory of self-deception and confabulation. Through split-brain experiments, “mind-reading” experiments, and “don’t know” tests, we have learned that people deceive themselves, through physical damage to the brain, and also through other, more natural mechanisms.
At the extreme ends of the self-deception continuum are clinical confabulation, which involves essentially no tension, and clinical OCD, where tension is highest and the checking processes are out of control. Clinical confabulation is a condition in which people make completely false claims but have no idea that they are doing so because the checking processes that prevent such claims are not in place. This can happen through brain damage, to the orbitofrontal cortex specifically. It is in the orbitofrontal cortex that the checking process is thought to occur, although the right parietal cortex has also been implicated in the decision to initiate the checking process.
Sociopathy and a similar condition called disinhibition are also caused by damage to the orbitofrontal cortex, and also involve very little tension.
In any case, when the normal checking processes do work, and the validity of potential claims is checked, false claims are weeded out before being articulated. This is what we see when people are functioning in what the above list refers to as the “neutral normal” condition. But even people who are considered “normal” tend to make false claims without being aware of it. Apparently this is due to the checking processes being diminished not by physical damage, but by the emotional stress caused by the mental imagery involved.
For example, anosognosia refers to the denial of illness or physical disability. People with anosognosia will confabulate about the loss of an arm or a leg, pretending that the limb is still intact despite being given overwhelming evidence that this is not true. It is simply too emotionally disturbing, at least initially, for such people to admit their disability.
Our representation checking processes have been shown, through electroencephalograph (EEG) experiments, to involve an emotional evaluation first, followed later by a cognitive evaluation. That is, the limbic system is first actuated in response to a potential claim produced by our explanation-producing mechanisms. It is thought that the limbic system (emotional seat) can “distort or eliminate the conscious experience of an emotionally significant event” (Halgren & Marinkovic). In such cases, cognitive evaluation of mental representations is avoided altogether.
In other words, we tend to filter out information that would bring us great emotional pain. In doing so, we leave ourselves with alternative scenarios and stories that do not involve the filtered facts, and that consequently can be quite absurd with respect to reality.
It seems we can all agree that few public events in recent memory were more “emotionally significant” than 9/11. And we should also be able to agree that our emotional responses to this event have been manipulated and exploited by one of the two primary suspects in the crimes, the group of people who exploited the crimes to start the resulting wars.
We should consider that, regarding 9/11, where alternative theories do exist the difference between the official story and the alternative accounts boils down to one small but important question. Were government representatives involved in committing these crimes? Those upholding the official account, as given by the 9/11 Commission, are convinced that no government representatives from any nation or locality could possibly have been involved. On the other hand, those promoting the less well-defined alternative theories suggest that some form of government representatives would have had to be involved for the crimes to have succeeded.
This brings us to examples of the milder forms of self-deception in the continuum, and the most prevalent ways in which people self-deceive with regard to 9/11. How are “normal confabulation” and “self-deception with tension” reflected in the national discussion about 9/11? One widespread case of self-deception without tension, or normal confabulation, concerns the recent popular use of the word “conspiracy.”
We all understand the definition of a conspiracy to be a secret plan, among two or more people, to commit a crime. Yet many of us pretend that the definition of the word has changed dramatically since 9/11. It is certain that, unless you believe these crimes were committed by one person acting alone, you believe in a conspiracy about 9/11. But people today have been trained to use the word conspiracy to mean only a small subset of conspiracies enacted by powerful people, like government officials.
For those who make this redefinition, al Qaeda is not capable of a conspiracy, and moreover, belief in conspiracies committed by powerful people is not rational. We are therefore left with the notion that conspiracies are irrational altogether, despite the fact that our news and our laws are chock-full of conspiracy charges. Additionally, to accept this redefinition, we must close our eyes to the many instances of conspiracy involving powerful US government agencies, like Operation Northwoods, Operation Gladio and the Tonkin Gulf incident, all of which are now a matter of indisputable fact.
Another simple example of tension free self-deception regarding 9/11 concerns the “blowback” theory. This is the idea that certain people in the Middle East, who the US government has been bombing and blockading for many years, might gather up the means and organization to strike back with vengeful acts of otherwise irrational violence, by attacking symbols of western wealth and power. One reason this theory is so obviously confabulatory is that its proponents cling forcefully to it, but yet could never, under any circumstances, consider the “managed blowback” theory. That is, they would never allow the thought that powerful people might notice, and then manipulate, exploit and even promote, such vengeance.
One particularly interesting example of these two simple forms of confabulation, the redefinition of conspiracy and the “blowback but never managed blowback” theory, is found in the book: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein. This book is well written, apparently well researched, and very frightening.
In the The Shock Doctrine, Klein handles the idea of a conspiracy surrounding 9/11 in an interesting way. After going to great lengths to describe what can only be called a long-term conspiracy to economically exploit (and torture) a string of entire nations, she adds a small disclaimer section near the end of the book saying — “No conspiracies required.” This is a bit like reading the bible and struggling through a new section at the end claiming — “No deities required.”
In this disclaimer section, which might have been added simply to ensure the book got published and promoted, Klein goes on to suggest that “The truth is at once less sinister and more dangerous [than the 9/11 conspiracy].” She struggles slightly in an effort to explain that –“wars waged for control over scarce resources…create terrorist blowback.” The ideas here are clearly meant to separate the book from any implication that certain powerful people, in the wars they have recently created to seize control of scarce resources, could ever have helped along (or managed) the events that were absolutely needed to initiate the whole process.
But again, to give Klein some credit, she does not resort to the larval stage of confabulation regarding 9/11. That is, she doesn’t suggest that those people who ruled and abused us so completely during the eight years of the Bush Administration were simply too stupid to have been involved in 9/11. Instead, Klein observes that those engaging in economic shock and disaster capitalism are quite shrewd. She mentions Donald Rumsfeld as part of this clever group.
In any case, maintaining self-deception about 9/11 is not easy. It requires people to ignore the fact that the ever-changing official story of 9/11 was created (and repeatedly re-created) by representatives of the Bush Administration, who lied to us on many occasions. Additionally, continued self-deception about 9/11 involves ignoring a huge number of other startling facts. These include the fact that the US national air defenses shut down for nearly two hours only on that one morning, and insider trading occurred without any insiders, and three tall buildings fell through the path of most resistance, when no such things have ever occurred before or since.
We all confabulate and self-deceive and we do so regularly. In fact, some powerful people appear to work to exploit that fact of human nature. Our best chance at avoiding such exploitation is to notice the self-deceptive tendencies in ourselves, and prioritize education in relation to them. With 9/11, we have an opportunity to do just that, by witnessing the most glaring and widespread examples of self-deception in our time. That’s why 9/11 truth has such a powerful potential to effect real change in our society.
Hirstein 2005, Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation, MIT Press
Halgren & Marinkovic 1995, Neurophysicological networks integrating human emotions, The Cognitive Neurosciences, ed. M.S. Gazzaniga, MIT Press
Klein 2007, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Metropolitan Books