By Susan Blackmore Ph.D., Psychology Today
Is the light always on in my mind?
Is the light always on inside the fridge?
This odd question has – surprisingly – much in common with my first Zen Question “Am I conscious now?” You may remember that the more I asked the question the more slippery it felt. Or you may have been meditating on this question yourself and found the same peculiar effect. I found that the more often I asked “Am I conscious now?” the more I felt as though asking it was turning on some kind of inner mental light.
But what about all the time I was not asking it? Was I then in some kind of mental darkness? Is this Zen Question an inner light switch? And what is the darkness like?
This is where the fridge comes in, because (unless you dismantle the door switch or drill a hole in the side) the light’s on every time you look. This is what the French neuroscientist and philosopher Kevin O’Regan calls the “refrigerator light illusion” and he thinks it applies to all our perceptions. We think we see a rich and detailed picture of the world in front of our eyes when in fact our brain contains no such picture. Instead, visual experience is just a lot of scraps that seem convincing while we are manipulating them with our minds, but just disintegrate when we stop. We never realise this because – like the light in the fridge – every time we look again the world comes back.
Like many deep meditators, this neuroscientist thinks we are deeply deluded about our own minds.
Ever since I learned about the refrigerator light illusion I’ve felt as though I’m going around trying to catch my inner fridge out – can I open my mind quickly enough to see how the darkness looks?