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Lotto Heads • Posted: Apr 18, 2010 13:41:53Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

For anyone who understands probabilities, it's hard to imagine the attraction gambling has for so many. For almost always, the probability of winning is minuscule compared to the probability of losing. That's just the way the numbers work out. There's nothing supernatural about it, karma or no karma, dumb luck or no luck. The only thing that could alter that very reliable fact is something amiss with the mechanisms underlying the generation of probable outcomes. In other words, if the game is fixed. Yet, even if people suspect a game could be rigged, they will play. Clearly, some aspect of human psychology beyond ignorance and unclear thinking is providing motivation and rationale. But what is that aspect of human psychology?

Everyday life is full of uncertainty. The phenomenal world behaves according to perceivable rules. But few, if any of us, completely understand those rules, much less seem capable of keeping track of or predicting the consequences of how those rules might interact, intersect, or just plain collide with our own aspirations. Certainty eludes us. But then a comparatively simple game comes along, possibly even a rigged game. Do we want to play? Very often we do. But why?

For one thing, even though the odds of winning are long, there are two things about playing that are quite certain: one, someone will win, and two, there is certainty to the thrill of challenge and anticipation. And in the case of a state sponsored lottery, even if we lose, the state wins. And the state is us. Hence, it's possible our taxes won't increase.

Yes, yes, but that hardly explains the myriad of stories people tell themselves while contemplating engaging in or actually playing games of chance.

No, it doesn't. There obviously is more. People love a mystery, especially a relatively benign one. And they love to play detective. A friend puts it this way, "There are many things that happen that are not explainable by rational thought. ... anyone who lives from pure rational thought is missing out on an entire body of intelligence that is part of our existence. You can deny and ignore it, but it doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

That's a premise many people seem willing to accept, at least for parts of their day. Whenever enjoying fiction, for instance. Writers call it "suspension of disbelief". Their works fail to sell if that quality has not been achieved. But what quality of mind prompts people to so willingly deny the world behaves in a manner that is at base utterly and coldly rational? And by "rational", I mean obeying laws whose connection and operation can be understood by a rigorously reasoning mind, as in the realm of mathematics.

Evidence of experience is what many will point to when they try to explain why they find themselves willing to believe in a non-rational world. One psychologically recovering middle aged guy, in my acquaintance, points to a time in his life when his wife had just left him, he'd lost his job and was about to lose his house, and he found himself down on his knees in his living room balling like a baby. As he tells it, that's when a "beautiful Angel" appeared to him, "floating right above him through the ceiling", and said to him "everything will be OK".

Silly? Not to that guy, I assure you.

Research into how the human brain operates is on going and not all the answers are in, but what seems to happen is that a great deal of what we experience in conscious thought has undergone a significant amount of preprocessing in areas of the brain that are not directly accessible to consciousness. Many of us have found ourselves wakened by a sound that was in fact part of our dream, or perhaps found ourselves dreaming about peeing before we realized we needed to pee. In the case of the sound, we have to ask how did our dream know about the sound before we heard it? And similarly, we can ask how did the dream know we had to pee before we knew we had to pee? The answer to both questions is that parts of our brain did hear the sound, or sense we had to pee, and later informed the parts of our brain that formulate dreams which later informed parts of our consciousness that prompt us to respond to things like unexpected sounds and needing to pee. The timing may seem irrational or even supernatural, but it is in fact neither irrational nor supernatural.

So, how does that explain the Angel sighting? It doesn't, not exactly. But brain mechanisms responsible for dreams and hallucinations often activated during times of extreme stress, when the body is scavenging for any idea that could help, would seem to be implicated.

In response to my quoted friend above, and others who might buy into that line of reasoning, the fact that we do not yet fully and rationally understand things we may have experienced does not mean that such an explanation isn't waiting for us to discover. Denying rationality may for a time be amusing, and for some comforting to feelings of inadequacy, but it is not a viable road to useable and empowering wisdom no matter how many offerings are made to the gods of irrationality.

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009
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