The brain is a marvelous thing – but it can also play tricks on us (for our own good, of course)
Have you ever felt badly blue, critically assessed your life and thought, Of course I’m depressed! Anyone would be under these circumstances!, and then gone to bed, or for a walk, or for coffee, or whatever it is that you do, and felt better?
‘Oh’, you thought, ‘it was the night/the weather/the deadline/the head lice that made me temporarily insane. I love my life. Could use a little bit of tweaking at the edges, maybe, but nothing major.’
Most of us have felt exactly this way at one time or another. And if you don’t feel worse than this, than guess what? You are not depressed. Instead, you’ve just suffered from a mild delusion – but that’s normal.
In fact, your life is always going to be slightly worse than you think. That’s right. You are less moral, less reasonable, less kind, less lucky and less smart than you think. Aren’t we all. If you were depressed you would feel lousy most days, and if this went on for more than two weeks you would be well advised to go and see a doctor.
But if you’re not depressed then you’re not a good judge of how things are going. The depressed – aside from being tedious negative – Nellies – are better judges in some areas of critical thinking than the rest of us. The rest of us are optimists because it gets us through the day.
How smart do you think you are? A bit above average? Isn’t everyone. I have done less-than-perfectly in exams because I was tired, anxious, pregnant, overqualified, didn’t study at all, missed the lecture, or the questions were stupid. I have never done worse than I expected in an exam because more than half the people who took it were smarter than me. Like everyone else, I am smarter than average. I don’t know where the half of people on the wrong side of the intelligence bell curve are hiding, but clearly no one has told them yet.
We – excluding the floridly delusional and the depressed – who are neurologically normal are poor critical thinkers. Some try to think well, and some don’t bother, but the results have been in for years. We are lousy at critical thinking. Our brain wants us to feel good. It tells us lies so that we do. We can’t all be ‘above average’.
People believe weird things. Few of us understand statistics (a subject which should be taught in detail in primary school), and I have seen grown adults confronted with the phrase, ‘show me a double blind study’ look up with big puppy dog eyes and say, ‘I don’t know what that means, but I’ve heard amazing stories so I know it’s true’.
And actually, even if we try not to believe weird things, they still slip through. Imagine you’re a doctor. In all probability you or your work subscribes to a couple of journals about interesting medical stuff. You probably get digests of popular journals sent to your email address. Drug reps bring pens and reports. All together, we are talking about hundreds of studies a week here. To keep up to date, you will only read the interesting ones in detail, and if they ‘seem right’ and confirm what you know to be true, you won’t dig around to be sure the study was done well. This is a self-serving bias. You see what you expect to see. And if a study comes out tomorrow showing irrefutably that smoking is good for you, everyone will look at it, squint at it, and say, ‘well, I just don’t believe that’.
Here’s an example of how this works. Studies have shown, repeatedly, that Echinacea really does nothing for the common cold. Nothing. One study showed it actually made colds worse, but that was an errant finding. I’ve been watching the Echinacea phenomenon for ten years now, and every time it is proven not to work, someone says ‘the dose they used in the study was too low, too high, preserved in alcohol, or brewed under a waning moon so of course it didn’t work…but for just $50 I can hand-bottle the perfect dose for you’.
It still doesn’t work.
Vitamin C also doesn’t work, at least not in the 2,000 mg-an-hour school of cold-fighting. The anti-viral flu injection doesn’t have as much promise as was hoped ten years ago. We all make mistakes, and we like to see things that aren’t there so long as they make us feel good. Conventional medicine is fallible, but it does get the message eventually. Conventional medicine makes errors, isn’t always skeptical enough (of drug companies), is perhaps overly-critical of herbal wisdom, but it tends eventually to get with the program. Show it enough studies and it says, ‘well…OK’.
Unfortunately people with a vested interest in something that can be proved to be false (homeopathy, for example) have, by definition, a vested interest in maintaining their point of view. True believers will never be convinced, or at least the majority won’t. Bad No good Western Medicine comes off a little better, because it is based in science which is true (I mean, specifically that it has a plausible congruent hypothesis which could be – but hasn’t been – disproven. That being a damn fine definition of a scientific fact). That this is, so the beliefs of your local GP are only nominally threatened when they read that they have been prescribing and believing in an antiarthritis drug that provides as much pain relief as panadol, and kills then odd person. They feel foolish at first; then their brain tells them they couldn’t possibly have known , then they feel better about themselves and their profession, and make a note to be cautious with arthritis management in future. If a homeopath sees a study that shows the whole thing is junk science (and doesn’t work, to boot) they have a lot to loose by accepting this. So they don’t. They become a little paranoid and delusional, which is bad, but they get to keep their jobs and their belief in themselves. Which is good. I suppose.
Anecdotes aren’t evidence. They’re stories. We all suffer the placebo effect, and what a blessing that is. The human brain abhors a vacuum. We like to feel useful. ‘Magical thinking’ is the phrase that describes believing in magical things because we don’t like to know how little we know. Magical thinking describes at times a schizophrenic’s reasoning, but it also explains our tendency to attribute cause and effect where there isn’t any. ‘I feel better because I took vitamin C’ really means, ‘the less I know about vitamin C or the cold virus, the more I see the connection’. I don’t know much about computers, but I like to feel smart, so I can gather erroneous information to form a belief about why it won’t do what I want it to. We all do this. But it doesn’t make it right.
The human brain selectively remembers information to support beliefs that support you. This is why there is no point trying to argue someone into or out of religious beliefs. They will accept your arguments only if they are receptive to them, in which case, they are susceptible to believing you and it is in their interest to do so. And yet, the letters page…
You recall the two times in your life that you intuitively thought of a person not thought of for years, only to run into them, or hear they’ve died. Because you like the idea of having spiritual powers and being intuitive. You fail to recall the four million times that you have thought of a person out of the blue, and never saw them, heard from them, or thought of them again. Great dinner party stopper: ‘I had this desire to look up this guy from school – and then a week later I heard he had died!’ Would you believe that the statistical probability that that would occur by chance is really high?
Just another trick of our wonderful, if sometimes deluded, brains.