Thursday, May 29, 2014

Self-Defense of Beliefs

In a recent Time article called "How to Win Every Argument" there is a 2004 study cited that I have wished for a long time would be completed and hadn't realized it had been done. The study is a little different from my reasoning for doing it, but not by much. In this study, an MRI was done when people's political positions were challenged. It turns out that the areas of the brain where reason and logic are handled shut down when this happens. Instead, the study's authors assert, "...the parts of the brain that handle hostile attacks — the fight-or-flight response — lit up."

To me this makes perfect sense because it falls in line with an idea I hold that our beliefs can be so central to our sense of self that any attack on them is perceived no differently than a physical attack. I have said before that I thought the brain's perception of the self in this expanded way can provide insights into how we react when strongly held beliefs are challenged. If a person were to put up no defense when a staunch belief position is impugned, it would be just about the same as doing nothing when being physically assaulted.

In addition, for those of us who have incorporated strong beliefs into the definition of our self, to change those beliefs voluntarily is the equivalent of commuting suicide (or for conceptual reasons, a partial suicide), something we also strongly resist.

For me, the solution to this problem is to be taught (or teach ourselves) that belief itself should be seen as detrimental. Instead, we should look to always keep the door open to new information that will adjust what we think about literally anything.

The protection of our self is so primary to our nature of existence that our basic instincts come into play when we detect a threat, and the challenge to something we inflexibly hold to be true causes us to do whatever we can to eliminate the perceived jeopardy in which we find ourselves no differently than a material danger. We need to recognize this fault in ourselves (our selfs) and minimize it the best we can.

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell hits on this point this way in describing one example of a deep cultural behavior that needed to be overcome:  "To become a success at what they did, they had to shed some part of their own identity..."

Also from Malcolm Gladwell's
Outliers: "Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear as first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don't. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are."

A recent article from Brain Pickings has two passages that also hint at this idea of self-protection being more than physical. One quote, from B.F. Skinner, includes the passage: "
You tend to protect a bubble you’ve created and nurtured your entire life... Another, from the article's author: "The mind’s delusory tendencies, [David] McRaney explains, are just as vital as the automatic self-preservation processes of the body."

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