Why We Can Be Dogmatically Against Things We Know Nothing About

UPDATE: This article will appear in the soon-to-be-released latest edition of The Write Stuff: Thinking Through Essays by Pearson Canada. Looking forward to it!

As philosopher John Locke observed: “New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.”

So, what limits our desire and capacity to take in new ideas, even when we hold an intention to transform and to grow? What are the barriers to changing our minds and behaviors? How can we develop habits that allow us to explore our own biases? How can we learn to recognize our own intolerance of ideas that refute our prevailing beliefs and opinions?

These are tricky questions, but new discoveries in neuroscience, social psychology, and anthropology offer provocative insights into the barriers to transformation. They show us that our views of reality are embedded largely in our unconscious mind. Operating below the threshold of our conscious awareness, our beliefs and assumptions shape our experience, even while we’re busy making other plans.

Research from the Cultural Cognition Project (CCP), a Yale Law School initiative, found, for example, that policy and public perceptions, such as those around climate change or nanotechnology, are shaped by cultural beliefs more than scientific data.

In one experiment, Don Braman and his colleagues at CCP divided people into two cultural values-based groups: “individualistic” and “communitarian.” The research team presented both groups with identical information on nanotechnology, something the participants knew little about. According to Braman, the facts that people were presented with — negative or positive — did not impact their impressions of nanotechnology. Instead, both groups recalled data that supported their preexisting values and rejected information that didn’t; unsurprisingly, we all learn to maintain our existing models of reality.

Another study helps understand why this is so. Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang, researchers from Dartmouth College, have discovered that a resistance to new information may actually be hardwired into our brains. When confronted with dissonant data — that which contradicts what we expect to see — even trained scientists appear to reject contradictory information that goes against their assumptions about how the world works.

Using the sophisticated brain mapping tools of an fMRI, the scientists discovered that the brain triggers activity in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), the section largely associated with the perception of contradictions and errors. This process is important for editing out false information but can also inhibit the ability to retain correct information that goes against a group of scientists’ prevailing scientific assumptions. At the same time, another portion of their brains, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), suppresses unwanted information that doesn’t jibe with the scientists’ preexisting theories. When triggered, this area of the brain can actually cause individuals to delete the contradictory information from their awareness.

This can be a serious problem for scientists who are charged with the discovery of new knowledge about life. It is also a problem for the rest of us who seek to expand our horizons or maintain an open mind. These experiments reveal a truth about human nature: belief blinds us to alternative points of view and can even lead to dogmatic assertions about things we know nothing about. The data calls for humility to question our deepest assumptions. As James Michener remarked: “An age is called dark, not because the light fails to shine but because people refuse to see it.”

This article originally appeared in Spirituality and Health Magazine.

About Marilyn Schlitz

Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D. is a social anthropologist, researcher, award winning writer, and charismatic public speaker. She serves as President Emeritus and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Additionally, she is a Senior Scientist at the California Pacific Medical Center, where she focuses on health and healing, and board member of Pacifica Graduate Institute. For more than three decades, Marilyn has been a leader in the field of consciousness studies. Her research and extensive publications focus on personal and social transformation, cultural pluralism, extended human capacities, and mind body medicine. She has a depth of leadership experience in government, business, and the not-for-profit sectors. Her broad and varied work has given her a unique ability to help individuals and organizations identify and develop personal and interpersonal skills and capacities needed by 21st century leaders. Her books include: Consciousness and Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind Body Medicine; Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life; and Death Makes Life Possible. She also wrote and produced a feature film, Death Makes Life Possible, with Deepak Chopra, that has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She is currently creating enrichment programs for life long learning and health professionals.

3 Responses to Why We Can Be Dogmatically Against Things We Know Nothing About

  1. Gemma October 24, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Hi, just wanted to say, I loved this article.
    It was helpful. Keep on posting!

    • Marilyn Schlitz October 25, 2013 at 4:37 am #

      Tx! Our minds are so very complex!
      Please read on…and keep posting. So warmly welcome!

  2. Rick Herranz Sr. December 21, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Hello Marilyn
    I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart to be doing what you are doing. It is a relief to know that a person with your education and knowlege to help some of the culture who is poor and disadvantaged learn from people like you, to leArn how to live life more wisely and skillfully. Thanks for being a light on. The path of my evolution and continued human developement.

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