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Why We Can’t Fully Trust Our Minds to Detect the Truth

In times like this, characterized by uncertainty, life threat, and change, our minds are exceptionally vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories. The more we are yearning for truth, the more it’s running away from us…One of the paradoxes of life.

Let me explain some of the reasons why.

  1. When we are in fight/flight state we lose our critical thinking ability.

We have evolved to ensure survival in a hunter-gatherer environment. Even though we have drastically changed our environment and created the artificial world we live in, we still operate with a hunter-gatherer nervous system.

The sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system is responsible for fight or flight response. When our neuroception, i.e. our unconscious and involuntary 24/7 surveillance system, determines there is a danger, it activates the sympathetic state. In this state, our system uses all its resources to physically fight or physically run away from the potential predator. That’s why we go through physiological changes to mobilize the body, like increased heart rate, muscle tension, increased energy, etc…

In this state, the oxygen and glucose,.ie. the fuel for our brain, is pulled away from our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). PFC is the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking (in addition to many other sophisticated mental skills). In nature, time of danger is not the right time to do critical thinking; it’s time to fight or run away. The brain does not prioritize the truth, it prioritizes survival. It’s evolved to err on the side of safety.

Imagine an ancestor walking in savannah… a bush moves… birds fly away. Is it time to think if it’s a harmless animal or a predator and weigh in the evidence? Hell no, it’s time to run away and get ready to attack. If it’s a bunny, oh well..he was wrong…not a big deal. But if he took time to think and it was a tiger, then game over. That’s why the critical thinking part of our brain is shut down (or its functioning decreased significantly depending on the intensity of the sympathetic response). That’s why I keep saying

“We are all stupid sometimes even if genius”.

What does it have to do with misinformation?

Misinformation tends to spread widely when there is uncertainty and danger lurking around. Right now, we have a pandemic that threatens our lives, our freedom, our financial security. Naturally, the majority of people are in a sympathetic state. As a result, their Prefrontal Cortex is not functioning optimally, taking away their critical thinking ability. When confronted with misinformation during this state our brain is less likely to filter out even the obvious logical fallacies, let alone fact-checking or other analysis. Did I mention that logic also resides in PFC?

2. When we are in fight/flight state we see dangers where there is none.

When the sympathetic state is activated, the brain is searching for sources of danger. And if it’s not sure something or someone is dangerous or not, it’ll label it as dangerous. The program we are running is “err on the side of safety”, remember? So we are prone to judge neutral stimuli as dangerous, see dangers where there is none.

This feature of our nervous system goes overdrive when the threat we are dealing with is invisible or can’t be tied to an enemy or predator. Now the brain is working really hard to find the source of this threat and fight the predator.

I believe that’s why conspiracy theories are so easy to stick. They take all the complex problems of the world we are suffering from and direct them to their chosen (or fictionalized) predators. And our brain in sympathetic mode looovees that. Finally, there is the enemy that can be fought or hidden from. Finally, there is some level of control and certainty about the situation.

It has nothing to do with truth, but with what our nervous system needs at that moment. The psychological benefit of finding an enemy in flesh plus our critical thinking skills being down, makes us suckers for conspiracy theories when in fight/flight state.

3. Our brain is limited in understanding complexity

Even though the human brain is complex and able to do amazing things, it’s still limited in its ability to comprehend and process the complexity of the universe and problems of the modern world.

The brain is a story-making machine: it simplifies, generalizes, categorizes and creates simple narratives to be used as a road map. This function is useful, otherwise we’d be lost on how to act or make decisions. The problem is that the vast majority of people confuse their stories with the truth.

As Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzbski points out

“Map is not the territory”

My antidote for that is to still have stories to act on but to know that they are stories, not the truth itself. This allows me to keep a relatively flexible and open mind. It also allows me to have a choice of what kind of stories I want to create. If everything is a story, I’d rather pick stories that work for me and the greater good.

Again, conspiracy theories come up with simplified stories to a complex problem and our brain loves that too. Stacking up with the points I made above, it’s no wonder why we love a good conspiracy.

4. Confirmation bias makes it difficult for us to be objective

Once we take one of our stories as truth, we have a belief. These are formed either early in life when we did not have our perspective-taking skills developed yet and we take every story as truth, or when we are older because these stories provide some benefits.

Take conspiracy theories for example: if I ask nobody will say they benefit from believing that there are evil people responsible for their suffering. However as I covered above, these beliefs provide short-term benefits to our nervous system.

Once we form a belief, our brain filters everything based on the assumption of it being true above anything else. It rejects facts that conflict with it and cling on the ones that support it. Our brain also looks at the ambiguous facts and sees support to its beliefs. The brain always favors it’s own manufactured “truths” over the objective ones. One more score for conspiracy theories and misinformation.

My way of dealing with the difficulty of seeing the truth is to keep my mind as flexible as possible. I consider myself a Possibillian in the sense that I try holding multiple ideas in mind without committing fully to any particular story. I always have working hypotheses to guide me but not a deep conviction. Living life without strong convictions is not always easy, but it’s liberating, resilient, and humbling.


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