Our fact-resistant brains
More than the amazing technology that gave rise to “water-resistant” or “shock-resistant” things, nothing beats nature in making sure our brains were “fact-resistant” (FR).
We all know this on many levels. When I was a child and my mother would just tell me “no” and I would ask “why”, I would gather evidence to convince her to change her mind and most times, “FR”. The kinds of arguments I have had with her have remained the same through the years and in fact, being more skilled now in gathering and analyzing facts, I have more to offer her now. But she has remained bolted to many of the same positions on a range of things as fervently now that I am 50 as when I was 3.
If you are in an intimate relationship, just see how your partner clings to his or her personal beliefs about how the children should be raised, how his or her things should be taken cared of, how money should be spent or saved. If we easily changed our minds about these things when presented with facts, books on how to make relationships work will not make a cent.
On another level, just make a quick scan at all the large-scale and deep disagreements now about issues that are dependent on facts – climate change, if an all-out war on drugs really works, if an official really committed murder, corruption, or rape. My most favorite is when someone significant is caught saying something on video by all the media who broadcast on planet Earth and that person or his/her minions will deny that s/he said that by saying “that is not what s/he meant’ or “if you knew him/her, that is not what s/he meant” (free-loading you with the guilt of not having them as friends.)
Fact-resistant people are particularly zealous about their beliefs when these beliefs are political or religious. They are picky with where and for what they would like to accept facts. They will not argue with you about science when it comes to gravity or excited electrons in computers BUT they will take it gravely when the science is about evolution (“I did not descend from apes, maybe you did!”) or morality (“we are all made to be good!”) or climate change when it threatens their way of life (“People were made to have dominion over the Earth.) You show them facts and they set them aside, saying “those came from suspicious sources” or “you just don’t have the experience to see what we see” or “You don’t know what I know.” They will say and do all sorts of things except look at the facts or allowed to be swayed by them, including this column.
A recent study looked at the brains of self-confessed people with deep political views. They checked on what happens to their brains when they were thinking about their own political beliefs and also non-political beliefs. They found that when people think about their politics, their brains’ most active parts are the ones associated with self-identification and when these political views were challenged, the brain part associated with negative emotions light up.
Similar things happened in a study of people and their religious beliefs. When these people were made to think about their deeply-held beliefs, the parts of the brain that are strongly associated with “self” accompanied those thoughts.
This is why political or religious arguments, especially those strung in social media threads are so vicious. People who hold on to them feel that, even with clear facts, you are attacking who they are (self-identity), instead of their opinions, when you challenge their beliefs. And scientists think that just like how our immune system goes on red alert when attacked, apparently our brains also protect whatever is tied to our self-identity. It is like a fortress with a moat. When attacked, it retrieves the draw bridge so nothing can get in. This is the reason why political or religious arguments hardly ever get anywhere. This is also the reason why I never engage them. It is not just difficult to get anywhere ELSE with them, it is impossible. They always think you are an invader.
But take a long and bigger view of human history and of your own personal histories. Evidence also suggests that people also can and do change their minds. It just does not seem to happen in one instance but takes many points along the orbits of history and our individual lives.
We changed our minds from thinking we were the center of everything when we were presented with a first glimpse of the Earth being just a dot in space. We discovered that it is really the brain and not the heart that controlled our thoughts. We (thank goodness) accepted that infection was caused by organisms and not by the devil. We know now that “being possessed” was caused by mental illness and not by Lucifer and his friends. If we are not able to change our minds, light never gets in.
So the question is, knowing the fact-resistant nature of our brains, how do we guard against having a fortress for a brain so that we can use the light from outside when we need to rescue us from ourselves? – Rappler.com