Posts Tagged ‘Graham Lawton’

Effortless Thinking: The God Shaped Hole in Your Brain

January 18, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Graham Lawton in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.”

Lawton writes, “If God designed the human brain, he (or she) did a lousy job. Dogged by glitches and biases, requiring routine shutdown for maintenance for 8 hours a day, highly susceptible to serious malfunction, a product recall would seem to be in order. But in one respect at least, God played a blinder: our brains are almost perfectly designed to believe in God(s).

Lawton’s article is seriously flawed as he conflates God with religion. He notes that conflict, misogyny, prejudice, and terrorism all happen in the name of religion. This is true, but religions are human creations. HM finds that most criticisms of God are actually criticisms of religion. The God shaped hole in the brain that he rather thoroughly documents can be real.

Pascal made a very effective argument to believe in God called Pascal’s Wager.
The argument is put into the context of cost benefit analysis. Suppose one does not believe in God, and God exists. This could be extremely costly.

However, suppose one does believe in God, but God does not exist. This part of Pascal’s Wager is unique to HM, or so he likes to think. Then, so what? One would be dead and would never know of the mistaken belief. But during that person’s life, he had the comfort of believing in another existence.

Religions are not required for someone to believe in God. Indeed, there are many reasons to avoid them. One can develop a personal relationship with God via prayer and meditation. After all, as Mr. Lawton wrote, there is already a hole in our brains for it.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Effortless Thinking: It Pays to Resist Revenge’s Sweet Taste

January 16, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Graham Lawton in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.”

According to popular wisdom, revenge is a dish best served cold. When we get a hunger for it, we feel satisfied once we’ve had our fill.

We could see why if we take a good look at what’s going on in our brain. According to criminologist Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge, brain scanning reveals the neural pathways of the revenge process. An initial humiliation fires up the brain’s emotional centers, the amygdalae and hypothalamus. They inform the anterior insular cortex, which evaluates whether we have been treated unfairly. If it has, the prefrontal cortex steps in to plan and execute retaliation. Finally, the brain’s pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, swings into action to judge whether the revenge is satisfactory.

Revenge appears to be a universal human trait and the list of wrongs that need to be avenged are common across societies. It includes homicide, physical injury, theft, sexual aggression, adultery and repetitional damage to oneself, loved ones, or members of one’s tribe.

Unfortunately, it is easy to get revenge wrong. Too little and you reveal that you are worth exploiting. Too much and you risk starting a tit-for-tat cycle of revenge. Since we often make such misjudgments, it is likely why we have evolved an instinct for forgiveness too. Evolutionary psychologists see this as part of the same cognitive tool, to minimize any fallout from revenge. Once it is enacted mutual forgiveness follows, and the relationship is reset, for the time being at least.

See the healthy memory blog post, “Revenge, Sweet, but Not Heathy” for some helpful ideas on patching up relationships.

Effortless Thinking: Adapting Our Need to Feel Part of a Gang

January 15, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Graham Lawton in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.”

Tribalism is a deep-rooted evolutionary instinct. For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in small nomadic bands of mostly related individuals in frequent conflict—and occasional alliance—with neighbors over scarce resources. Tribes made up of individuals prepared to fight for a common good had a competitive edge over those that weren’t, so tribalism was selected for by evolution. We are one species, but we instinctively and effortlessly identify with smaller groups.

Research has shown that tribalism and the hostility it engenders are easy to induce. More than 60 years ago, Muzafur Sharif at the University of Oklahoma took 22 adolescent boys to Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. This was a psychology experiment although it had all the trappings of a traditional summer camp. The boys had been divided into two groups, each unaware of the other’s existence. They were given cooperative tasks to perform, quickly bonded and developed hierarchies and cultural norms. Towards the end of the week, the experimenters engineered a fleeting encounter between the groups. Even though the boys had been chosen for their similarities, hostilities flared. The camp descended into a sort of tribal warfare, with derogatory insults, land grabs, nocturnal raids, flag burning and, eventually, a mass brawl. Hostilities only ended when the experiment introduced a common enemy in the form of fictitious vandals.

There have been many experiments showing that the flimsiest and most transient badges can trigger people to divide themselves into “us” and “them”—even the color of randomly assigned T-shirts will suffice.

Tribalism can be good or bad. It can be a useful motivating force; rivalry between scientific teams working on the same problem, for example. It also underlies some deeply unedifying behaviors to include racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Nevertheless. there is hope that boundaries between “us” and “them” are fluid. This needs to be recognized and fluidity encouraged where indicated.

Effortless Thinking: We’re All Suckers for a Celebrity

January 14, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Graham Lawton in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.”

According to the article’s author, there is a prestige bias. He writes, “According to biologists, this prestige bias is an evolved feature of human cognition that goes back to the time when our ancestors were nomads living in small bands.” We are social learners, meaning that we copy the behavior of other people rather than figuring out everything from scratch. People who copy successful individuals can acquire useful, survival-enhancing skills. Doing so required sustained and close contact with the skilled. Psychologist Francisco Gil-White says the best way to do this is to “kiss up.” Pay them complements, do them favors, sing their virtues and exempt them from certain social obligations. Those of our ancestors who kissed up to talented individuals advanced their own interests, making them more likely to survive and reproduce. Unfortunately, evolution has favored sycophants.

Unfortunately, this can backfire in the modern world. Today we don’t just judge the prestige of people we encounter directly, but also those whom we only know vicariously. We follow our natural tendency to watch others and conform. If certain people are routinely fawned over, we assume that they are skilled and prestigious individuals who would be wise to kiss up to ourselves.

Lawton writes, “Prestige exerts such a strong pull on the human mind that the construction and perpetuation of hierarchies is hard to resist. In lab experiments people find it easier to understand social situations where there is a clear pecking order, and express preferences for hierarchies, even if they are at the wrong end of them. “

Lawton advises that we should be more discerning about whom we place at the top. If we base prestige on skill and genuine achievement, then those we kiss up to won’t be the only ones to benefit. This is especially true as many of the prestigious rich and famous provide very poor role models. So special care is needed in selecting proper role models.

Effortless Thinking: Beware the Voice of Your Inner Child

January 12, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Graham Lawton in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.” The article begins, “The wind is alive, heat flows and the sun moves across the sky—childish intuitions shape our world, and can skew views on things like climate change.”
By the time children enter school, they have filled their minds with utter nonsense about how the world works. The job of science education is to unlearn these “folk theories” and replace them with evidence-based ones. Lawton writes, “For most people, it doesn’t work, and even for those who go on to become scientists, it is only partially successful. No wonder the world is so full of nonsense.”

Folk theories have been documented across all domains of science. In biology, children often conflate life with movement, seeing the sun and wind as alive, but trees and mushrooms as not being alive. They also see purpose everywhere: birds are “for” flying, rocks are for animals to scratch themselves on, and rain falls so flowers can drink. In physics, children conclude that heat is a substance that flows from one place to another, that the sun moves across the sky, and so on. For most everyday purposes, these ideas are serviceable, but they aren’t true.

Children cling to these folk theories even when they grow up. And when they encounter difficult concepts, they cling even harder. Many intuitively see evolution as a purposeful force that strives to endow animals and plants with the traits they need to survive. These folk theories do get knocked back as we move through education, but they never go away. Psychologist Andrew Schulman says, “They can be suppressed by a more scientific world view, but cannot be eradicated altogether. Intuition can be overridden but not overwritten.”

Shulman’s group revealed this resilience by presenting people with a variety of statements about the natural world and asking them to say which were true and which false. Some were designed to be intuitively true but scientifically false, such as “fire is composed of matter”; others were intuitively false but scientifically true, such as “air is composed of matter”. People who got the correct answer still took significantly longer to process intuitively false but scientifically true statements. This was true even in the case of those who had been scientists for decades.

Similar results come from brain scans. When people watch videos that are consistent with the laws of physics but intuitively wrong—such as light and heavy objects falling at the same rate—the error-detecting parts of their brains light up, suggesting that they are struggling to reconcile two competing beliefs. The error-detecting parts of their brains lighting up are evidence for System 2 processes checking and correcting System 1 processes. The persistence of folk theory is revealed in people with Alzheimer’s disease too. Tests of their science knowledge show that they often revert to folk theories as their higher executive functions decline. These higher executive functions that decline are System 2 processes. Earlier healthy memory blog posts have suggested that the infrequent use of System 2 processing might have led to their cognitive decline.

The article concludes, “The upshot is that scientific thinking is hard-won and easily lost, and that persuading most people of the validity of things like evolution, climate change, and vaccination will always be an uphill struggle.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Effortless thinking: Why Life is More than a Zero-sum game

January 11, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Graham Lawton in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.”

In a classic zero-sum situation, resources are finite and your loss is my gain. Lawton writes, “Many situations in life follow this pattern—but not all. Unfortunately, this subtlety tends to pass us by. At best, seeing competition where none exists can blind us to opportunity. At worse, it has very unpleasant consequences.”

Dan Meegan, a neuroscientist at the University of Guelph in Canada says, “Zero-sum thinking was an evolutionary adaptation to to a time when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers. Under those circumstances, resources such as food and mates were finite and often scarce, so more for one person meant less for another.” However, today, things can be different. System 2 processes need to be invoked to assess whether or not something is a zero-sum game.

A good example is international trade. Treaties between nations are usually designed to be win-win: the more trade that happens, the more resources there are for everybody. The basis for this is “comparative advantage,” whereby trade benefits even less productive countries provided they concentrate their efforts of the good they are most efficient at producing (this is complicated. Google “comparative advantage example” for an explanation). Still the bias persists. People find it hard to believe that a trading “win’ for a foreign partner doesn’t lead to a loss for them. This is one reason why free trade is politically unpopular among people it would benefit. Donald Trump is one of the people who can’t understand why a win for a foreign partner is not a loss for the United States. These trade deals are quite complicated. It takes many experts from each side examining the deal to see if it advantageous to them. Moreover, there will be disagreements even among the experts. But eventually a consensus is achieved by both sides and a trade agreement is reached. Trump has no use for experts, as it just “knows.” So he tends to break trade agreements that were beneficial to both sides. In doing so he injures both the United States and its trading partners, in effect damaging world trade.

Another problem is the misperception that discrimination is a zero-sum game. As early as 2011, during President Obama’s first term, there were signs that many white Americans perceived growing “anti-white prejudice” despite overwhelming evidence that whites still enjoyed privileged access to jobs, education, and justice. Research indicated that this was at least party based on the misperception that discrimination is a zero-sum game—that less of it against minorities necessarily means more against white people. This misperception played a large part in the disaster of the election of Donald Trump. The article concludes, “With so much riding on it, just being aware of zero-sum thinking could go a long way to improving social relations.”

What the article doesn’t mention is the desire of people to perceive themselves as being better than other people. Unfortunately, many people regard this desire as a God-given right. Even when objectively their group is better off than other groups, they regard the improvement of other groups as a threat to them. Here System 2 processing needs to be invoked to reject this perception as bigotry and to appreciate the good in the improvement in other groups.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Effortless thinking: Thoughtlessly thoughtless

January 10, 2018

The Cover Issue of the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist is titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.” This issue features many articles on effortless thinking and its costs. The lead article in this issue was written by Graham Lawton and has the same title at this post. Lawton writes, “You might even argue that our predilection for fake news, conspiracy theories and common sense politics suggest we are less inclined to think than ever. Our mental lassitude is particularly shocking given that we pride ourselves on being “Homo sapiens,” the thinking ape. How did it come to this?”

Lawton continues, “The truth is, we are simply doing what people have always done. The human brain has been honed by millions of years of evolution—and it is extraordinary, However, thinking is costly in terms of time and energy, so our ancestors evolved a whole range of cognitive shortcuts. These helped them survive and thrive in a hazardous world.”

Lawton continues, but does not mention Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process Theory of Cognition.  This theory was expanded upon in Kahneman’s best selling book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  System 1 is fast and is called intuition.  System 1 needs to be fast so we can process language and make the fast decisions we need to make everyday.  System 1 is also the seat of our emotions.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds loosely to what we mean by thinking.  System 2 requires mental effort and our attentional processes.

The cognitive shortcuts Lawton mentions are essentially System1 processes. They are fast, efficient, and do not make attentional demands. And they work. Consequently, humankind existed in a fairly primitive state for a very long time. System 2 processes are supposed to monitor System 1 processes for errors. Cultural advances occur when System 2 processes are invoked result in better thinking and better ideas. Unfortunately, civilizations have tended to abandon System 2 processing with resulting declines. The formulation of science provided new System 2 processes that are responsible for the advanced age we live in. Unfortunately, not all enjoy this new age, and there is a regression to System 1 processing that is causing disruptions in advanced societies. Hostility is being expressed towards knowledgeable individuals, who are regarded as elites, and uncomfortable facts are regarded as fake news.

These System 1 processes that come to us almost effortlessly can get us into a lot of trouble. Lawton writes, “The first step to avoiding these pitfalls is to identify them. To that end, we bring you the “New Scientist” guide to sloppy thinking…”

This guide is a fairly extensive sequence of articles that will be addressed in the following healthy memory blog posts.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Super-You: You Have a Superstitious Mind—to Protect You

December 12, 2016

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there is a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.  This superstitious mind piece is written by Graham Lawton.  Lawton writes, “The vast majority of people are religious, which generally entails belief in a supernatural entity or three.”  Nevertheless, among the oceans of religiosity are archipelagos of non belief.  Conservative estimates are that half a billion people around the world are non-religious.

However, among the scientists who study the cognitive foundations of religious belief, there is a widespread consensus that atheism is only skin-deep.  Should you scratch the surface of a non-believer and you’ll likely find a writhing nest of superstition and quasi-religion.

Lawton writes that this is because evolution has endowed us with cognitive tendencies that, while useful for survival, make us very receptive to religious concepts.  Psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia says, “there are core intuitions that make supernatural beliefs easy for our brains.”

One of our cognitive abilities is known as theory of mind which enables us to think about and intuit other people’s thoughts.  That’s certainly useful for a social species like us, but it also tricks us into believing in disembodied minds with mental states of their own.  The idea that mind and body are distinct entities seems to come instinctively to us.  When teleology —the tendency to seek cause and effect everywhere and see purposes where there is none—it is obvious why the human brain is superstitious (See the healthymemory blog post (“Thinking 2.0).

Presumably these same thought processes underlie beliefs supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, spiritual healing, reincarnation, telepathy, astrology, lucky numbers and Ouija boards.  Three-quarters of Americans admit to holding at least one of ten common supernatural beliefs.

Lawton writes, “With all this supernatural equipment filling our heads, atheism and scientific materialism are hard work.  Overriding inbuilt thought patterns require deliberate and constant effort, plus a learned reference guide to what is factually correct and what is right and wrong.  Just like a dieter tempted by a doughnut, will power often fails us.”

Experiments have shown that supernatural thoughts are easy to invoke even in people who consider themselves skeptics.  Asked if a man who dies instantly in a car crash is aware of his own death, large numbers answer “yes”.  People who experience setbacks in their lives routinely invoke fate, and uncanny experiences are frequently attributed to paranormal phenomena.

Of course, it is impossible to prove that everyone falls prey to supernatural instincts.  The supernatural exerts a pull on us that is hard to resits.  It is likely that the belief that we are rational creatures is wishful thinking.

One can argue that Pascal’s Wager does provide a rational justification for a belief in God.   See the healthymemory blog post  “God.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Belief

April 18, 2015

Our beliefs direct our lives and how we think.  The initial part of this post comes from an American Scientist (4 April 2015, 28-33) article by Graham Lawton.

Initially our beliefs are determined by default.  Children believe what they are told.  This is fortunate, otherwise the child’s development would be retarded.  So our brains are credulous.  A brain imaging study by Sam Harris illustrated how our brain responds to belief.  People were put in a brain scanner and asked whether the believed in various written statements.   Statements that people believed in produced little characteristic brain activity, just a few flickers in regions associated with reasoning and emotional reward.  However, disbelief  produced longer and stronger activation in regions associated with deliberation and decision making.  Apparently it takes the brain longer to reach a state of disbelief.  Statements that were not believed also activated regions associated  with emotion such as pain and disgust.  These responses make sense when regarded from an evolutionary perspective.

There is also a feeling of rightness that accompanies our beliefs.  This makes evolutionary sense except in the case of delusional beliefs.  People suffering from mental illness can feel quite strongly about delusional beliefs.  And when we here a belief from a friend or acquaintance we find to be incredulous, we might ask, “Are you out of your mind?”

So a reasonable question is where does this feel in of rightness originate.  One is our evolved biology, that has already been discussed.   Another is personal biology.  The case of mental illness has already been mentioned, but there are less extreme examples that researchers have found.  For example, conservatives generally react more fearfully than liberals to frightening images as reflected in measures of arousal such as skin conductance and eye-blink rate.

Of course, the society we keep influences both what we believe and the feeling of rightness.  We tend to associate with like minded people and this has a reinforcing effect on our beliefs.

The problem with beliefs is that progress depends on the questioning of beliefs.  The development and advancement of science depended on questioning not only religious beliefs, but the adequacy of these beliefs.  Progress in the political arena depended on questioning the validity of the concepts of royalty and privileged positions.

Beliefs are a good default position.  Absent beliefs, it would be both difficult and uncomfortable to live.  Nevertheless, beliefs should be challenged when they are clearly incorrect or when they are having undesired consequences,

My personal belief about beliefs is that we manage to live on the basis of internal models we develop about the world.  But I don’t believe that any of my beliefs are certain.  They are weighted with probabilities that can change as the result of new information (data) or as the result of new thinking and reasoning.  Even my most strongly held beliefs are still hedged with some small degree of uncertainty.

A good example of this is Pascal’s argument for believing in God.  His argument was that the payoff for not believing in God could be extremely painful.  However, even if one’s belief was infinitesimally small, one should believe.  I have always found this to be one of the few philosophical arguments to be compelling.  So I believe in God.  Anyone who does believe in God has the comfort of this belief while living.  And if there is no God, one will be dead and have no means of knowing that one was wrong.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant scientist that has made significant contributions to science.  However, he is one of the most outspoken atheists.  Recently he has admitted that he does have some uncertainty and that he is more accurately an agnostic.  However, he argues that he is far enough down on the agnosticism scale to call himself an atheist.  Here we have a stupid argument from a brilliant man.

I find that  many of the problems people have regarding the existence of God stem from religion.  It is important to keep in mind that religions are human institutions and are flawed.  Religions have done much good, but they have also done harm.  Apart from Pascal’s wager, I have a philosophical need for God.  Of course, I realize that my philosophical needs are not necessarily supported by reality.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.