The neuroscience of lame excuses

If there was ever an illustration of the human mental interpreter at work, it may be this PR statement about damage caused by reflections from a curved building:   “The phenomenon is caused by the current elevation of the sun in the sky. It currently lasts for approximately 2 hours per day, with initial modeling suggesting that it will be present for approximately 2-3 weeks.” The spin doctors were responding to the ability of London's concave Walkie-Talkie skyscraper to focus sunbeams and partially melt objects, in one case, part of a car. Our mental 'interpreter,' so named by neurologist Michael Gazzaniga, is explained by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist:

    The left hemisphere is the equivalent of the sort of person who, when asked for directions, prefers to make something up rather than admit to not knowing. This impression is confirmed by Panksepp: ‘The linguistically proficient left hemisphere… appears predisposed to repress negative emotions, and even chooses to confabulate.’ To some extent perhaps we inevitably confabulate stories about our lives, a process overseen by what Gazzaniga calls the left-hemisphere ‘interpreter’. - The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist, 2009

Among the rationalizations offered by the architect for the architectural faux-pas - in addition to the sun being in the wrong place -  are:

  1. 'the superabundance of consultants and sub-consultants' required by UK regulations
  2. 'sub-consultants that dilute the responsibility of the designers'
  3. 'the fault of the architectural discipline which has cast itself into a completely secondary thing'
  4. 'the calculations said it was only going to be 36 degrees'
  5. 'there was a lack of tools or software that could be used to analyze the problem accurately'

It gets worse (or better, depending). Of a similar debacle in Los Angeles the same architect said "That was a completely different problem," claiming he was following a masterplan that specified arc-shaped towers. "We pointed out that would be an issue too, but who cares if you fry somebody in Las Vegas, right?" The master designer reflected: "They are calling it the 'death ray', because if you go there you might die. It is phenomenal, this thing."

Persistent rationalizations and denials are among the key ingredients of progress traps. Gazzaniga was perhaps too kind when he called the cerebral matter that does this, the 'interpreter'.

Oddly enough, we probably all feel a modern, urban compulsion to let the architect and master confabulist have the last word:
"When I first came to London years ago, it wasn't like this...Now you have all these sunny days. So you should blame this thing on global warming too, right?"

Previously published at

See also:


McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press

The eBook is available at
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Progress Trap - the book
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"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)