Brains We Can Believe In

Above this paragraph, there is a non-existing embedded video from Jonathan Phillips (Yale University) and Eric Mandelbaum (Baruch College) at the Blogginheads channel Mind Report. Because there is something weird about WordPress and embed codes which I haven’t grokked yet, you’ll just have to follow this link.

Rene Descartes' illustration of somebody's finger telling his brain he's an idiot.

Rene Descartes’ illustration of somebody’s foot telling his brain he’s an idiot.

The conversation brings some seriously hardcore brain candy. It’s two basically two brain geeks talking about what a belief is, and how we come to form one, both cognitively and philosophically. And they get right into the center of the Trayvon Martin case without even mentioning it.

They are particularly good when they leave the more abstract discussion in the beginning for more concrete and relatable ideas a little under halfway into the video. There’s some really good stuff on the relationship between distraction and propaganda.

The part on racism was the most interesting to me. It casts a lot of interesting light on, for instance, the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin case (never explicitly discussed, though) and the stream of ideas flowing from it. They get into how the negative, reflexive biases of a culture (like an automatic negative reaction to black people wearing hoodies) form and how you can undermine them. Or how, like me, if you’re heavily invested in certain political ideas, anything which doesn’t cohere with them is flagged for criticism by your conscious mind, which means that you forget to criticise your own assumptions.

My takeaways:

  1. Since cognition grew out of perception, the default setting for new information you receive is that you accept it and form beliefs around it. Evaluating information and being critical is secondary and requires extra effort.
  2. The best way to be critical is to shut out distractions and just focus on that one problem consciously, effortfully and over time. Preferably in front of a fireplace or something.
  3. Philosophers and people with philosophical training (full disclosure: I have some) cultivate mental habits which makes them quicker to reject new information. Seems legit.
  4. Racism has a strong unconscious basis, and people who hold conscious egalitarian beliefs are often unconsciously racist. (There’s a test which indicates this goes for me. And, well, everyone.)
  5. Ideas which attack core beliefs and identity are attacked by our conscious mind much more easily than beliefs which do not, leading to an attention bias.

Source: The Dish.

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