Not long ago I received an ‘Amber Alert’ email from a friend I consider a reliable source of news. Scanning past the lengthy chain of forwarding addresses I found an urgent message pleading for information on the whereabouts of a missing girl by the name of Ashley Flores. I wondered what kind of association my friend might have with the family of the disappeared. After a quick Google search of the child’s name I realized what I had begun to suspect-that the ‘Amber Alert’ was indeed a hoax.
In a matter of seconds how could my thinking leap from belief to suspicion and ultimately to outright doubt?
Setting aside a lofty but spent discussion about truth and falsehood, I have come to find a neurosurgeon’s input about the brain and belief as a revealing point of view. Robert A Burton has written an approachable, even engaging, book toward this end called On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. The former Mt. Zion-UCSF Hospital Associate Chief of Neurosciences describes for readers what one might take as granted in the act of believing-specifically, the feeling associated with being correct. The sensation one experiences during moments of certainty varies-from knowing that 2+2=4 to that tip-of-the-tongue familiarity with a name or concept during a temporary lapse of memory.
The book illustrates how deeply anchored the experience of knowing is in physical sensation: a misinformed individual will stick with his ‘gut’ belief even while facing irrefutable evidence of his error.
Burton cites psychological experiments that commonly reveal a rift between a person’s recall of an event and the actual thoughts one records in writing after said event. Participants in such experiments-when confronted with the contrast between memory and written record-are apt to respond: ‘That’s my writing, but that’s not what happened.’
The feeling of knowing Burton returns to frequently throughout the book. As the author presents it, the feeling of knowing factors in such neurophysiologic processes like the brain’s reward system that perpetuates certain behaviors; it also plays a critical part in the trial-and-error method of learning a language; more fascinating than any other idea or argument in On Being Certain is how the feeling of knowing enables his critique of the two pillars of Western thought: reason and objectivity. (So much for setting aside any lofty discussions!)
To set up his critique, the author imagines a disembodied brain without sense organs-no eyes, ear drums, nor any other physiological capacity; as though the brain ‘could easily memorize the definitions for force, mass and acceleration and the equation f=ma without any personal experience of these conditions. But having never felt gravity’s tug, it seems unimaginable that it could, from scratch, conceptualize the equation.’
More to the point, he asserts that ’[t]here is no isolated circuitry within the brain that can engage itself in thought free from involuntary and undetectable influences. Without this ability certainty is not a biologically justifiable state of mind.’
To apply Burton’s thinking to my experience with the ‘Amber Alert’ email, it was not simply that rational thought prevailed when I concluded the message was untrue. When I observed that this email had been forwarded multiple times-seemingly without thought-it reminded me of all the other urban legends or hoaxes over the years that had found their way into my inbox. This sensation of recognizing the kind of email I had read prompted my Google search of the girl’s name. Though I could not exactly describe the feeling of knowing (though I would hazard a guess it has something to do with my equilibrium), Burton believes that the neural processing for this sensation could be located within a specific region of the brain, much the way processing ‘modules’ for the vision and auditory senses have been located through studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging.
As crass as the old adage ‘It’s all in your head’ may seem, how we process what we know at the neurological level strikes me as just as important as what and why we believe what we believe.