Can I Trust Myself?

By Pete Johnson

A rather stubborn and opinionated friend of mine recently gave me pause to contemplate how much faith I should have in my own cognitive abilities. As per usual he posted a link on Facebook which I would label as anti-science propaganda. I replied with a well substantiated and definitive graph demonstrating that his assertion was false, but he still clung to his original assertion.

Generally I pull out of such conversations quickly. The only tangible effect that I have ever experienced is that I get frustrated, and last I checked I have yet to see anybody actually change an opinion while arguing on Facebook. What I did take away was a gut curiosity about taking responsibility for the fallacies I might be clinging to.

The real cosmic mind bender in all this is not just the top layer of fact checking the beliefs that I am aware of; things like global warming is real, patience is a virtue, or I should lose weight. But what about the beliefs I hold that I am not aware of? Food is safety, love is risky, wealth is difficult. Being an introspective bugger, I really think that deep down this rabbit hole is the key to why we are the people we are, and how we might change our life experience.

How do we decide to believe something? To get a handle on this we need to look at the brain. We all want to pretend we spend most of our time in the cerebral cortex examining facts and drawing non-biased conclusions. But information is easy to manipulate and this area of the brain is very susceptible to falsehood. For example, someone may supply links to 24 scientific papers which reject the concept of manmade global warming. A person could read all 24 papers and come to the conclusion that we are not warming the planet. However, there is an egregious information crime being committed here. What was omitted was the fact that the publisher cherry picked those 24 papers from a total study of 13,950, conveniently omitting any reference to the other 13,926 papers. With no knowledge of this other huge number, they will accept 24 as being significant.

We also have lower functions of the brain: the limbic system and what is called the “lizard brain.” This is where the real havoc ensues. Flight, fight, food, safety, reproduction, and danger all come from this area of the brain. To build on the above example we can remove any reference to scientific papers and simply create an article on a “news” website. Give it an inflammatory headline “The Great Global Warming Hoax!!” Fill the article with hyperbole about Al Gore being a hypocrite with an astronomical electric bill, and implications that the government merely wants to make you pay carbon taxes. Reading this article will trigger negative responses in these lower brain regions about threat, safety, and trust. Even with no factual backing at all this article would be effective for some people in creating a belief. The lower brain has now paired the idea of global warming with these negative responses. Our final step would be to provide the links to the 24 scientific papers. Now it appears to be factually credible and you get the added bonus that the ideas of a hoax, Al Gore is a hypocrite, and tax conspiracy all get to come along for a free ride under the guise of factual.

But that’s all dealing with the outside world. I’m more interested in our beliefs about self and our relationship to the rest of reality. Let’s say for example during the 4th grade, one of your parents suddenly got a really good paying job and you had to move and leave all your friends behind. You moved into a big house, got an awesome new bedroom, and a whole pile of toys. However, you had a hard time making new friends at school. That experience may generate an unconscious belief that it’s better to remain poor otherwise you will have no friends.

I can’t find happiness. There are no good jobs out there. All the good single people are taken. Most of our beliefs we just simply accept as facts. We just “know them to be true,” but they are far from factual or accurate. We all have some degree of trauma in our lives which generates many of these random associations. I guess for now all I can do is remain curious about how many of these conscious and subconscious self-limiting beliefs I have and how I may change them. Of course I’ll continue to read the Bellingham Muse for other interesting articles on this topic.