© By Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC
Foundational Concepts of the Intentionality Series
“Only a group of people who share a body of knowledge
and continually learn together can stay vital and viable.”
~ Max DePree (author of The Art of Management)
In the past two years I have been reading a large number of neuroscience books -- which means, of course, that I have been reading the opinions of neuroscientists put forward into book form. On ADDandSoMuchMore, I wrote the first of what will become a Series of writings about opinion and "fact" (Science and Sensibility – The Illusion of Proof: Observation, Anecdotal Report and Science).
This article, written for Hazel Owen's Ethos Consultancy community is another in that series of writings.
Thinking about KNOW-ledge
I just finished an eBook by Dr. Ginger Campbell ( Are You Sure? -- The Unconscious Origins of Certainty ). Ginger hosts the excellent Brain Science Podcast. Her synopsis of some of the major themes of surety was prompted by her two-part discussion of a book by neuroscientist-turned-novelist, Dr. Robert Burton ( On Certainty: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not ), which included an interview of the author.
Ginger's brilliance is her ability to distill the essence of the thinking of others into words that make the ideas accessible to those who are relatively new to the topic. I highly recommend her eBook, even if you struggle with reading , and especially if you lack the time to read a longer development of the topic. I certainly recommend her podcasts.
In any case, with the "opinion or fact" series I am jumping into the long-standing catfight between neuroscience and psychology with a third point of view: the importance of listening from belief to anecdotal report, remaining diligently aware of our innate tendency toward confirmation bias.
There has been a great deal of research and writing on the implications of the concept of confirmation bias, so many of us have a familiarity with the expression.
Confirmation bias is a term describing the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their hypotheses or closely held belief systems.
Individuals display confirmation bias when they selectively gather, note or remember information, or when they interpret it in a way that fits what they already believe.
The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues, for deeply entrenched beliefs, when we are desperate for answers, and when there is more attachment to being right than being effective.
Those of us who are well-educated tend to be some of the most intractable. By the time we become adults, we've put a lot of time and energy into compiling a body of knowledge we like to consider our "expertise."
The Myth of the Love of Learning
Most of us love to KNOW - learning is a necessary "in order to" goal on the pathway to knowledge.
I have observed that even children, whom, the stories assert, have an innate love of learning until inadequate education systems beat it out of them, don't ever really enjoy learning a new task or bit of information in the same way they enjoy acting out what they already know as they play.
Life-long learners have internalized the "attaboy" pleasure; drop-outs probably didn't get enough positive feedback to stay on the learning pathway. (Writing in Psychological Science, Smith et. al.  report that when randomly assigned participants are made to feel powerless they become worse at keeping on top of changing information.)
The feeling of KNOWING
We are all familiar with the feeling of knowing. Even when we cannot retrieve information, like somebody's name, for example, we somehow know that we know it, and we can usually recognize it when it is set before us. When we're struggling to understand a concept or locate the error behind a checkbook that won't balance, the aha! moment is another manifestation of that marvelous feeling of knowing.
We are also familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, a term coined in 1957 by Stanford professor Leon Festinger to describe the unsettling "That CAN'T be right!" feeling, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is.
We tend to go with what feels right, regardless of the evidence. Sometimes that "instinct" serves us, but many times it only serves to keep us stuck in paradigms that don't.
What causes the feeling of certainty?
Because there are some medical conditions and brain injuries where the feeling of knowing gets distorted, neuroscience is relatively certain that particular parts of the brain are involved. The recent discoveries of affective neuroscience point to the body's import in the process.
Even when the neurological damage accompanying a distorted feeling of knowing is substantially different, they all tended to choose in favor of what they felt, and then they would come up with tortured logic to support their conclusions.
What might be the evolutionary advantage of an unjustified feeling of knowing?
It would seem as if our fear response, developed to keep us alive, is somehow intertwined with our drive toward certainty.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that knowledge itself and the awareness of knowledge arise from different regions in the brain. With blind-sight, for example, individuals with damage to the part of the brain allowing them to have conscious awareness of vision are somehow able to act (function) in ways that show that visual information is none-the-less reaching other parts of their brain, even though they have no conscious awareness of being able to see.
Joseph LeDoux's rodent sound/shock experiment showed that removing the auditory cortex had no effect on their fear response, showing that there is an acoustic pathway that actually by-passes the auditory cortex. A rat doesn't have to be aware of the paired sound to feel fear - he does, however, have to have a functioning amygdala. Subsequent experiments, both animal and human studies, seem to confirm the role of the amygdala in the fear response.
But why would our physiology favor feeling over logic?
Human beings with damage to the amygdala are fearless to the extent that they often will be observed to act in very foolish, if not dangerous ways. The feeling of fear helps us make rapid, effective decisions in certain situations by avoiding decisions that would put us in danger, as well as the additional time we might be exposed to danger were we to stop to deliberate.
Cognition - thinking and the awareness of thought - involves the most recently developed part of the brain, the cerebral cortex.
The emotional element of certainty (as well as it's opposite, fear of uncertainty), seems to involve a connection between the rest of the body and the older parts of the brain, including the cingulate gyrus, amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and basal forebrain structures -- areas that, in the past, been called the limbic system.
It has been discovered that seizures involving certain "limbic" structures can trigger a sense of something familiar or déjà vu or, conversely, a sensation that objects in the physical world are unreal, so life itself seems to be a dream or an out-of-body experience.
Studies indicate that our sense of whether something is familiar or foreign, real or illusory, dangerous or safe, accurate or fallacious, is not really a conscious conclusion because it's coming from lower, older parts of the brain over which we have no conscious access or control.
Putting it all together
Dr. Burton says, "My goal is to strip away the power of certainty by exposing its involuntary neurological roots. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas."
He admits that he has no idea if he has become more tolerant in the process of writing an entire book about the unconscious drive toward certainty, but he goes on to say that he believes that remaining aware of the concept is likely to do so.
I do recognize that other people’s opinions arise out of separate lines of reasoning than mine, and that in nonscientific matters there is no litmus test to know with certainty who is correct . . . I'm aware of the fact that they're not starting from the same position. Just that alone is helpful.
The Importance of Listening from Belief
Burton's words brings me full circle, back to "listening from belief" -- in an article already too long to expand on the topic.
I hope that you will stay tuned for subsequent articles in this series, and that you will add your opinions and reactions in the comment's section - both here and on ADDandSoMuchMore.com. It seems to me that "remaining aware of the fact that [none of us are] starting from the same position" might well be the only way to work around confirmation bias and the down-side of our brain's quest for certainty.
I will simply conclude with the following statement:
Unless we make a special point of developing the habit of listening from belief, we run the risk of never knowing much more than we know right now -- and of, quite possibly, inadvertently shutting down another who has not yet internalized the "attaboy" joy of learning on the pathway to knowing.
A more complete book-list can be found by clicking BRAIN-BASED BOOKS (links to other booklists included)
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