from the world's big
Our Irrational Brain
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
David Ropeik: We are stuck in a post enlightenment fealty to pure Cartesian logical reason. “We’re smart. We’re at the peak of evolution. We have this powerful ability to think.” To paraphrase Ambrose Bierce from the Devil’s Dictionary however, the reality is, and there is lots of science about this, the brain is only the organ with which we think we think. Its job is not to win Nobel Prizes and to pass math tests. Its job is to get us to tomorrow. It’s a survival machine and it plays a lot of tricks with the facts in order to get us to tomorrow. That worked pretty well when the risks were lions and tigers and bears and the dark oh my. It’s not as good now when we need to rationalize and reason and use the facts more with the complicated risks we face in a modern age - climate change and genetically modified food and unsustainable living on the planet and—that takes a lot more thinking, kind of cognitive, slow, more effortful thinking.
That we are not instinctively built that way must be recognized if we’re going to get beyond the risks of not being built that way. It would be ultimately rational and reasonable for the rationalists and the Cartesians to accept what the science now tells us, which is the brain is only the organ with which we think we think and there is a lot of subjective mess that goes into the decisions we make that often fly in the face of the facts. We better accept that and understand it, so that we can apply that in order to avoid the pitfalls of our subjective way of perceiving the world. If we know why we get it wrong, if we know what subjective influences that Daniel Kahneman and Paul Slovic and a whole lot of really smart people have figured out about why our judgments don’t match the facts, if we know why we’re irrational more than just accepting that we are, the evidence says we are, but if we know why we can use those insights to say woops that is why we’re making this mistake about X, Y or Z and avoid the dangers of making that mistake.
Our brain is hardwired and the chemistry of the brain guarantees that we feel first and think second and that’s initially when we encounter information, but in an ongoing basis between the facts and the feelings in our brain the feelings carry more weight. I mean the feelings are—they feel wonderful, but they might be wrong. Recognizing that they might be wrong here is what you can do. Take more time. If the brain jumps to conclusions out of emotion first and more and there is plenty of science on this, just assume that your first decision might not be the most informed one. Don’t leap to conclusions, make up your mind quickly. Take more time, a half an hour, an hour, a day, two. Think about it. Cogitate on it. Get more information. Get more information, not just from sources who already tell you what you know and believe because that is just going to reinforce what you know, which will feel great, but may not add to your knowledge, but take more time and get more information and that allows that information and the fact side of this dual system to play more of a role.
Let me give you an example. Vaccines, let’s take—there is a relatively new vaccine HPV vaccine, human papillomavirus vaccine for young, pre-sexual aged daughters and they are now actually recommending it for boys too. Some versions of the virus are a scourge cause of cervical cancer and other sexually transmitted diseases. Well the first reaction many people might have is to the word vaccines. That has a whole stigmatized uh-oh. That’s a natural, emotional, first subjective protective way the brain is going to react to vaccines. If you just went with the reaction right there it isn’t as informed as looking up what is the prevalence of cervical cancer amongst girls in your demographic, your age group, your gender, your neighborhood, your walk of life. That would be interesting and helpful information. What are the side effects of the vaccine? Find out. I'm not making up your mind for you about the vaccine, but do you see how instinctively your first reaction to vaccines uh-oh starts to broaden against the subjective pitfalls of maybe getting it wrong if you give yourself more time and get more information?
Know that the brain’s instinct is to make quick decisions and to lean on instinct and affect and emotion first to make them and that might get you into trouble as a tool for making healthier choices and the quick, simplest, handy way to do that is give yourself more time, get more information from trustworthy sources and let the fact side of your reasonable, reasoning, rational, great computer up there play more of a role in the decisions you make.
Directed / Produced by
Elizabeth Rodd and Jonathan Fowler
That we are not instinctively built that way must be recognized if we’re going to get beyond the risks of not being built that way.
Join us at 2 pm ET tomorrow!
Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.
- The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
- Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
COVID-19 and the brain<p>A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/doi/10.1093/brain/awaa240/5868408" target="_blank">study</a> in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.</p><p>Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.</p>
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images<p>A separate study published in the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198407/" target="_blank">Journal of Clinical Neuroscience</a> notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.</p><p>A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/ucl-iid070620.php" target="_blank">press release</a>. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."</p><p>If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit <a href="https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study" target="_blank">cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study</a>.</p>
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.
- Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
- More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
- SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis [PDF]<p>Work in understanding the skills at the heart of the new digital economy is leading to novel assessments that allow individuals to prove mastery to faithfully represent their abilities—but also to give weight and stackability to the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials that make education more seamless across time and education providers. And we are seeing the beginnings of a renewal in the liberal arts, focused on building human skills in affordable ways that are accessible to many more individuals and far more effective.</p><p>Amidst these dark times, there is much opportunity to refresh the nation's education and training solutions to support the success of individuals and society writ large.</p>