First Story Wins
How the way the human brain forms beliefs leaves us wide open to being duped and manipulated
All brains are pattern recognition machines. Whether it’s the brain of an insect or the brain of a human, aside from maintaining autonomic functions (which are essentially also patterns of pulse, breath, etc.) the brain is responsible for making sense of the external environment and initiating responses that on average were adaptive for the ancestors of the organism.
What this means is that most behavior is largely automatic. We humans have complex brains and some occasional partial self-awareness, so our brains also have to provide us with “reasons” for our actions so that we can imagine ourselves to be in control rather than — as is generally the case — being asleep at the wheel. Also, our brains eliminate most of the signals that come in through our sense organs in order to focus on the sub-set that has the greatest probability of being immediately relevant. This is why, under conditions of stress, we experience tunnel vision: an obsessive fixation on the locus of perceived threat to the exclusion of everything else. It’s why we fail to notice things we see every day. Indeed, even the act of stroking the arm of a chair repetitively will result in the brain dulling the signals from our fingertips so as to free up attention for signals that may be more important.
In other words, we reduce complexity and we tune out seemingly unimportant information in order to enable our brains to cope. Our brains use a variety of shortcuts we’re totally unaware of, such as preferentially believing people who seem to be similar to us and distrusting people who seem dissimilar. And there’s one more important factor at play: when we grasp a concept we lay down new neural pathways. Once established, such pathways are not easy to alter.
This is why it is so difficult to counter erroneous impressions or mistaken ideas. Imagine someone who’s laid one thousand miles of track. The track may be running in totally the wrong direction, but it would require so much effort to tear up and re-lay in a different direction that it is actually easier to decide that it’s perfectly fine and that the intended destination is in fact wrong. When we form beliefs, our brains perform the equivalent of laying…