What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye

This is the story of a rationalist, who spent most of his time believing that reason is so much more powerful than emotions; someone who has tried his whole life to understand and rationalise his feelings. 

Someone who would — in moments of sorrow— search for reasons and causes of that sorrow. And, if he could not find them, believe that he had no right to feel that way. 

Someone who would ignore his intuition, if he could not make out where exactly it came from. 

Someone for whom every why had to had its because, otherwise it was not allowed to exist. 

A few stories over the last years have challenged the rationalist. These are some of them…

A few years ago, they developed an AI capable of recognising whether a painting truly belonged to van Gogh, or whether it was a forgery. The way they did that is by feeding the programme with hundreds of paintings that definitely belonged to van Gogh, as well as some famous forgeries such as those sold by Otto Wacker. So, every time someone claimed to be in the possession of a work painted by van Gogh, the programme would be able to determine its authenticity with high probably. Apparently, there is something hidden in these painting that the AI sees, but which the naked eye simply cannot capture. Actually, the experts from the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam could also figure it out, but it would take them weeks to do so. 

Hence, it is the second story that is even more fascinating. They uploaded retinal pictures of eyes that belonged to males and females. Based on this data, the programme was able to predict the gender of the person whose retinal picture it was looking at with a probably of 97 percent. The best ophthalmologists in the world have a 50:50 chance of getting the gender right, i.e. they can only do so with luck. Again, there is something in the human eye which apparently reveals our gender, yet no one, truly no one is capable of recognising what it is. What is it that the algorithm sees and we do not? We don’t know… and it’s questionable whether we ever will. 

So, just because we don’t see and understand something, doesn’t mean that that something does not exist, that it is not real and consequential. 

The third story is Antonio Damasio’s famous experiment as told by Jonah Lehrer in Proust Was a Neuroscientist. 

It went as follows: A player was given four decks of cards and $2.000 worth of play money. Each card told the player that he had either won or lost money. The subject was instructed to turn over a card from one of the four decks and to make as much money as possible. 

But the cards weren’t distributed at random as Damasio rigged the game. Two of the decks were full of high-risk cards. These decks had bigger payouts ($100), but also contained significant punishments ($1.250). The other two decks were more conservative — hey had smaller payouts ($50), but rarely punished the player. If the players only drew from these two decks, they would come out way ahead. 

At first, the card-selection was entirely random, given that no one had any reason to favour any specific deck. On average, people had to turn over about fifty cards before they began to only draw from the profitable decks. It took about eighty cards before the average player could explain why exactly he favoured those decks. Logic is slow. 

But Damasio wasn’t interested in logic. He was interested in the body. So he attached electrodes to the subjects’ palms and measured the electrical conductance of their skin — higher levels of conductance in the skin signal nervousness. What Damasio found was that after drawing only tend cards, the hand got “nervous” whenever it reached for one of the negative decks. While the brain had yet to completely understand the game — and wouldn’t for another forty cards — the subject’s hand “knew” what deck to draw from. The unconscious feelings generated by the body preceded the conscious decision. The hand led the mind. 

What I wish to say with these stories is the following: First of all, there are obviously things in life that we are not capable of seeing, but which nonetheless exist and are which are absolutely real. Secondly, and more importantly, what we are not able to perceive with the mind, or see with the eyes, sometimes we can recognise with the body, or feel with the heart. 

And this is precisely what the fox told The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

There is a certain intelligence in our emotions, intuition and inner voice and there is an increasing number of scientific papers confirming this. They cannot really be explained rationally, but simply because they do not function as reason. 

So, we are neither instinctive animals, nor rational robots; neither infallible, nor perfect. And it’s a good thing we’re not. As everything else in life, it all comes down to the right balance. As Dostoyevsky said in The Idiot, a fool with a heart and no brains is just as unhappy as a fool with brains and no heart. 

And so, when you hear your heart talk, at least pay attention. I cannot tell you whether you should follow it blindly. But at least listen to what it has to say… it knows what it’s doing. 

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