Sunday, April 11, 2010

Addicted to Being Certain

Neurologist Robert Burton

"Burton ... speculates that the insistence on being right might be the mental equivalent of a physical addiction. There are many people who seem to “derive more pleasure from final answers than ongoing questions, and want definitive one-stop shopping resolutions to complex social problems and unambiguous endings to movies and novels.” Perhaps such know-it-alls are people who are addicted to the pleasure of the feeling of knowing.

He further wonders whether our education system, which promotes black-and-white answers might be warping the reward systems of our students. If the fundamental thrust of education is “being correct” rather than acquiring a thoughtful awareness of ambiguities, inconsistencies, and underlying paradoxes, it is easy to see how the brain reward systems might be molded to prefer certainty over open-mindedness."
-- review

"Everyone stands on the pedestal of certainty, and it has lead us down some horrible paths ... Why are people so certain? Is this all simply personality, or is there something within our inherent biology that makes some of us more certain than others. What if there were aspects of brain function that actually created a sense of conviction, or certainty, or being right, and that if you understand that certainty arises out of involuntary brain mechanisms that are beyond your control, you have to acknowledge the fact that even though you might feel certain, that this is no different from being angry, or feeling love or resentment.

Science now points to reason as being a function of the brain, but that emotions, feelings, mood states influence how we start reasoning at the very beginning ... so if you think in terms of pure reason, as being the paradigm for proper life, you're going against what our modern day science is telling us about our brain function.

If you run up a tree and escape a charging tiger, that is the way you learn to avoid a tiger. But then you could say "Will this always work?" And then your mind sets out to think of examples of when it might not work, for example, the tree trunk is to thin and you fall down, and the tiger eats you. "Well, it will work when the tree is strong enough, but I can think of examples when maybe it wouldn't work. So, I can say it's right this time, because the tree is very strong and will hold me up, but I can't always know ... with certainty that this will always be right. Therefore, I'm always going to asking "it's true this time, but I don't know if it'll be true in the future." It's hard to learn that way. You've got to learn it's true now, and it will always be true in the future, even if that's not true. A thought, by itself, will never be finished ...

You need a second system in the brain. You need a 'feeling' about your thought ... that the thought you had is correct. Recent studies have shown these areas of the brain in which these phenomena of feelings of understanding and knowing arise have rich connections with the areas of the brain that provide reward systems ... The reward for a thought is the feeling of the thought's correctness. Every time that you feel that sense "Ah! I'm right!", you're rewarded in the same way as you would be rewarded if you took cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, won the lottery... This feeling of being 'right', for many people, is just as strong an addiction. You see these people saying "I know that I'm right!" with a big smile on their face. They're feeling pleasure.

Cognitive Dissonance, you hold on to an opinion that goes against something else you know to be true, against overwhelming contrary evidence [because the sense of conviction is pleasurable]." -- Robert Burton

CBC Ideas Podcast

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