YANSS Podcast 033 – The psychology of forming, keeping, and sometimes changing our beliefs

The Topic: Belief

The Guests: Will Storr, Margaret Maitland, and Jim Alcock

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Pizza Hut Pyramids

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Put your right hand on your head. Unless you are near a mirror, you can no longer see your hand, but you know where it is, right? You know what position it is in. You know how far away it is from most of the other things around you. I’m using the word “know,” but that’s just for convenience, because you don’t actually know those things. That is, you can’t be 100 percent certain your hand is on your head. You assume it is, and that’s as good as it is going to get – a best guess. We’ll come back to that. You can put your hand down now.

I once interviewed the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, and asked him about a condition known as anosognosia. This is the term for a disorder that causes the sufferer to deny another disorder. Blind people will sometimes believe they are not, for example. I asked him about this because I had learned that he once treated a patient with paralysis of one arm who denied that the arm was paralyzed even though she couldn’t move it when asked. She could no longer make an emotional connection to her arm. She denied that the arm was even a part of her. That biological connection, that feeling of ownership, was missing from her mind, and when asked whose arm it was she would say it was her mother’s or her brother’s. She said someone was playing a prank on her from under the table. Patients like this will explain away obvious things, but never seem to come out and say something like “it is my arm but I can’t feel ownership of it.” If she looked at her arm she could see the facts of the matter, but facts couldn’t alter her narrative. This is a form of anosognosia, and in these cases family and friends who are on one side of reality have a difficult time understanding how those on the other can continue to believe as they do. Inside the head of the sufferer, it’s not an easy thing to realize they are wrong. One of the defining features of anosognosia is that facts often don’t work on those who suffer under its terrible spell. I asked Ramachandran how that could that be possible.

Ramachandran said I should imagine a general on a battlefield, about to give the command to attack when an advisor approaches. The advisor tells the general that one of their scouts now says the enemy is stronger than initially believed, and that the attack should be postponed. The general decides that the chance of this one scout being right isn’t worth the cost of delaying the attack, and decides to ignore him. Ramachandran then said to imagine that the scout instead says he saw that the enemy had nuclear weapons, and believes as soon as the battle starts the enemy will launch them. Now, in this scenario, the general decides it would be a bad idea to continue, and decides to believe the scout. In a typical brain, he said, the general is careful not to overreact to reports coming in from the field; many of your strange psychological mechanisms serve to keep you on-task in this way, phenomena like denial and rationalization. But if a report is serious and reliable, the general puts all that aside, suppresses it, and responds appropriately. Except in some people the general inside their heads doesn’t do that. Damage to the right parietal seems to make it so the brain can’t properly gauge when a situation has become too serious to depend on rationalization and denial. Those sorts of brains keep on confabulating, and that’s why people who are blind can somehow continue to believe they are not despite what seems like irrefutable evidence to those of us on the outside of their skulls. That’s how come a person can deny her arm belongs to her even though it is physically attached at the shoulder.

V.S. Ramachandran also writes about treating patients who have lost limbs, often an arm, but the maps of their bodies do not get updated after the loss. The brain continues to generate a virtual arm, a representation that was once grafted onto flesh. That’s what you felt when you put your hand on your head. That’s the difficult truth to accept, that there never was a real arm in the first place, at least, not in the brain…it was always virtual, it was always a model, the only difference with those who have lost a limb is that the model represents something that no longer exists, and it can’t be updated. The sensory organs that used to provide the information that updated the model have been lost, yet the model remains.

To borrow from Ramachandran’s battlefield, the agencies of your mind are kind of like a general surrounded by lieutenants, all receiving news of the world by messengers, but the whole group is trapped in a war room and only able to interact with a map of the battlefield populated by models of tanks and little toy soldiers. That’s what it is like to be a brain. You are trapped in a skull, unable to actually interact with the world outside. You depend on messages from sense organs written in code. When you decode the messages, you alter the map and the models, but that’s all you can ever hope to know about the outside world – that map and those models. The evidence gathered so far suggests that one of the most important discoveries in neuroscience and psychology is that you often mistake your interactions with the world to be direct and intimate, and your sensations to be perfect replicas of the elements of the world that your senses perceive. In other words, you sometimes believe that the map in your war room isn’t a map at all, that it doesn’t represent anything outside of itself, but that it actually IS the real world.

Once you understand that the brain generates a model that is a representation of a more complex and nuanced reality, you can see that your interactions are broad and blunt, approximate and presumptuous, and probably wrong in many ways but in the end, good enough. That’s as much as neuroscience is willing to give you – good enough. Your narratives and strategies and memories and actions and decisions and judgments, they are good enough.

All you can ever know about your own body, or the world outside of it, is what your brain tells you, and your brain doesn’t tell you the truth. It just makes an approximation, it makes a model of the world. This is where belief begins. If you drill all the way down. If you dig until you reach the rock, your original faith, your central belief, is in your model of reality, the one generated by your brain. That is your terminal dogma: your faith in your internal representations of the world around you. It isn’t limited to ownership of your limbs or the belief that your hand is on your head when you place it there. Who is right, you ask, when your messengers arrive, the people telling you vaccines are harmful or those telling you that they are harmless? Who is right, the climate scientists or the politicians who distrust them? Locked in the skull, its only interaction with the world based on models and maps, your brain can only make best guesses that are good enough.

Will StorrOur guest for this episode, Will Storr, wrote a book called The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. In that book, Storr spends time with Holocaust deniers, young Earth creationists, people who believe they’ve lived past lives as famous figures, people who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, people who stake their lives on the power of homeopathy, and many more – people who believe things that most of us do not. Storr explains in the book that after spending so much time with these people it started to become clear to him that it all goes back to that model of reality we all are forced to generate and then interact with. We are all forced to believe what that model tells us, and it is no different for people who are convinced that dinosaurs and human beings used to live together, or that you can be cured of an illness by an incantation delivered over the telephone. For some people, that lines up with their models of reality in a way that’s good enough. It’s a best guess.

Storr proposes you try this thought experiment. First, answer this question: Are you right about everything you believe? Now, if you are like most people, the answer is no. Of course not. As he says, that would mean you are a godlike and perfect human being. You’ve been wrong enough times to know it can’t be true. You are wrong about some things, maybe many things. That leads to a second question – what are you are wrong about? Storr says when he asked himself this second question, he started listing all the things he believed and checked them off one at a time as being true, he couldn’t think of anything about which he was wrong.

Storr says once you realize how difficult it is to identify your own incorrect beliefs you can better empathize with people on the fringe, because they are stuck in the same predicament. They are just as trapped in their own war rooms, most of the time unaware that the map they use is, as psychologist Daniel Gilbert once said, a representation and not a replica. They are judging the evidence presented to them based on a model of reality, a map that they’ve used their entire lives, and you can’t just tell someone that his or her map is of a fantasy realm that doesn’t exist and expect them to respond positively. You can’t just ask a person like that to throw away that map and start over, especially if they’ve yet to realize it is just a map, and their beliefs are only models.

Margaret MaitlandJim AlcockIn this episode we ask experts where do our beliefs come from, how do we know where we should place our doubt, and why don’t facts seem to work on people? We explore the psychology of belief through interviews with Margaret Maitland, an Egyptologist, who settles once and for all whether or not aliens built the pyramids. We also speak with Jim Alcock, a psychologist who studies belief itself who explains how emotions and rationality combine to form our concepts of reality.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Heather Clarkson who submitted a recipe for Strawberry Cheesecake Sandwich Cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

NOTE: I originally wrote about some of this, specifically the Ramachandran interview, in my second book, You Are Now Less Dumb.

Strawberry Cheesecake Cookie

Links and Sources

DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Margaret Maitland’s Blog

Jim Alcock’s Belief Engine

Will Storr’s Website

Article on Phishing

In Search Of

Ancient Aliens

My Interview with Ramachandran

Bakeaholic Mama

Chariots of the Gods?

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YANSS Podcast 26 – Maslow’s Hammer

The Topic: Maslow’s Hammer

The Episode: DownloadiTunesStitcherRSSSoundcloud

Photo by Michael Jastremski – Original here: http://bit.ly/1iqqkjs

Take the YANSS Podcast survey, win a $100 Amazon Gift Card: http://www.podsurvey.com/yanss

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

You’ve heard the expression before. You’ve may have, like myself, smugly used it a few times to feel like you made an intelligent point in an office conversation. It’s one of those great comebacks that we’ve decided is ok to use in professional settings like congressional debates and televised political arguments about everything from gun control to foreign policy. But, it might surprise you to learn who wrote it, how young the above quote is, and why it was written in the first place.

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YANSS Podcast 015 – I read an excerpt from You Are Now Less Dumb

The Topic: Narrative Bias

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

The Ypsilanti State Hospital - Photo Courtesy of Opacity.Us

The Ypsilanti State Hospital – Photo Courtesy of Opacity.Us

In this inbetweenisode I read an excerpt from my book, You Are Now Less Dumb, about a strange experiment in Michigan that tested the bounds of the self by throwing three very unusual men into a situation that won’t likely be repeated ever again by science.

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YANSS Podcast 11 – Hazel Markus and The Influence of Where You Live on How You Think

The Topic: Culture

The Guest: Hazel Rose Markus

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Tombstone Honor Latin

Is your state of mind from one situation to the next drastically altered by the state in which you live? According to cultural psychologists, yes it is.

Studies show that your thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors in response to a particular setting will reliably differ from those of others in that same setting depending on where you spent your childhood or even where you spent six years or more of your adult life.

On this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, we explore cultural cognition and the psychological effects of the region you call home on the brain you call yours.

My guest this week:

Hazel Rose MarkusHazel Rose Markus is a social psychologist at Stanford University who studies the effects of culture, class, ethnicity, region, society, and gender on the concept of self and human psychology in general. She is the author of “Clash! Eight Cultural Conflicts that Make Us Who We Are.” You can learn more about her at her website here.

After the interview I try out a cinnamon chocolate cookie and read a bit of psychology news about how reading good books can make you more adept at reading faces.

In every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Tamar Levanoni who submitted a recipe for cinnamon chocolate cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Nov6Cookies

Links and Sources:

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Boing Boing Podcasts

The Website of Hazel Markus

Clash! Eight Cultural Conflicts that Make Us Who We Are

Tombstone Latin

The Southern Hallway Bump Study

The Good Books and Empathy Study

YANSS Podcast – Episode Eight – The Psychology of Video Games

The Topic: Video Games

The Guest: Jamie Madigan

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Last of Us Friend or Foe

A scene from “The Last of Us”

“The Last of Us” is a video game, a work of interactive art, and a question will arise in the back of your mind while playing, “What would I do in this situation?” and the answer will make you feel emotions no other art form can elicit.

The game is set in a post-apocalyptic United States, 20 years after the fall of mankind, in a world nature has mostly reclaimed, where resources are few and trust is scarce. Hope is the commodity in shortest supply. Most everyone has given up on rebuilding the old world. This is just how it is now. Every encounter with strangers pings that most primal of judgments under uncertainty: “Is this a potential friend or foe?”

Familiar? Sure, it’s a theme being explored all over in fiction. Something in the zeitgeist has us fretting over these things again, but in a game you have the opportunity to actually test yourself in a virtual reality, to see what you would do when the stakes are as high as possible. Would you trust others? Would you help strangers? Would you kill to survive?

In addition, “The Last of Us” explores something the gaming world calls ludonarrative dissonance. Many modern games have detailed stories with great writing and well-acted scenes interspersed between what amounts to bursts of mass murder. It can make a player feel like his or her agency in the world has been stolen by the storyteller, that the characters you are asked to portray live in two realities, one you control and one you do not. This can feel really off-putting when the characters are jaunty, smarmy, and noble in the cutscenes, but then you are asked to use those people to do terrible things. In an effort to solve this problem, Naughty Dog, the developers of “The Last of Us”, crafted an experience where you and the character feel justified when pushed to do harm, but afterward you, the gamer, feel disgusted with yourself and horrified by the power of the situation to change your behavior and shift your moral center. You find yourself quickly learning to avoid violence – a behavior I was astonished to see evoked in myself inside a game world, and was thrilled to experience. That’s something you won’t get watching “Breaking Bad.”

Watch a teaser trailer showing a friend-or-foe scenario here: Link

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In this episode of the YANSS podcast, we explore games and their potential to reveal our self delusions. I interview Jamie Madigan, the curator of psychologyofgames.com, who writes about the behaviors and cognitions that games both exploit and uncover. It’s a great interview. We discuss everything from the motivational nudging in “Candy Crush Saga” to the power of endowed progress when endorsing people on LinkedIn. Please forgive us for geeking out so hard during it. I promise, non-gamers will learn plenty in this episode. Links to the things mentioned in the episode are at the bottom of this post.

After the interview, as in every episode, I read a bit of self delusion news and taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of the new book, You Are Now Less Dumb, and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Violet Sinnarkar who submitted a recipe for white chocolate oatmeal cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 12.51.51 PM

White Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

Links:

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Boing Boing Podcasts

Psychology of Games

Papers, Please

Spent

Newsgaming

Underground Railroad Game

The Walking Dead 

Narco Guerilla 

The Last of Us

Candy Crush Youtube Video 1

Candy Crush Youtube Video 2

Candy Crush Youtube Video 3

Candy Crush Youtube Video 4

The study concerning the cognitive load of poverty

YANSS Podcast – Episode Four – The Self Illusion

The Topic: The Self

The Guest: Bruce Hood

The Episode: Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Russian Dwarf Hamster – Photo by cdrussorusso

You are a pile of atoms.

When you eat vanilla pudding, which is also a pile of atoms, you are really just putting those atoms next to your atoms and waiting for some of them trade places.

If things had turned out differently back when your mom had that second glass of wine while your dad told that story about when he sat on a jellyfish while skinny dipping, the same atoms that glommed together to make your bones and your skin, your tongue and your brain could have been been rearranged to make other things. Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen – the whole collection of elements that make up your body right down to the vanadium, molybdenum and arsenic could be popped off of you, collected, and reused to make something else – if such a seemingly impossible technology existed.

Like a cosmic box of Legos, the building blocks of matter can take the shape of every form we know of from mountains to monkeys.

If you think about this long enough, you might stumble into the same odd questions scientists and philosophers ask from time to time. If we had an atom-exchanging machine, and traded one atom at a time from your body with an atom from the body of Edward James Olmos, at what point would you cease to be you and Olmos cease to be Edward James? During that process, would you lose your mind and gain his? At some point would each person’s thoughts and dreams and memories change hands?

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