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Our Brains Lie To Us

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    NHNE Wavemaker News List Current Members: 397 Monthly Supporters: 74 Subscribe / unsubscribe / important links at the bottom of this message. ... YOUR BRAIN
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 2, 2008
      NHNE Wavemaker News List
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      By Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt
      International Herald Tribune
      Sunday, June 29, 2008


      False beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun
      revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less
      egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that
      Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign
      has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more
      difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store
      memories - and mislead us along the way.

      The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer's
      hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep
      in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man's curled pinkie finger.
      But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain
      writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In
      time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is
      separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example,
      you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably
      don't remember how you learned it.

      This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget
      whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer,
      people often later remember it as true.

      With time, this misremembering gets worse. A false statement from a
      noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during
      the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal
      storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the
      message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during
      the 2004 presidential campaign, it took weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans
      for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his
      standing in the polls.

      Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia,
      campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation.

      They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will
      persist long after it is debunked. In repeating a falsehood, someone may
      back it up with an opening line like "I think I read somewhere" or even with
      a reference to a specific source.

      In one study, a group of Stanford students was exposed repeatedly to an
      unsubstantiated claim taken from a Web site that Coca-Cola is an effective
      paint thinner. Students who read the statement five times were nearly
      one-third more likely than those who read it only twice to attribute it to
      Consumer Reports (rather than The National Enquirer, their other choice),
      giving it a gloss of credibility.

      Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our
      brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember
      news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that
      contradict it.

      In another Stanford study, 48 students, half of whom said they favored
      capital punishment and half of whom said they opposed it, were presented
      with two pieces of evidence, one supporting and one contradicting the claim
      that capital punishment deters crime. Both groups were more convinced by the
      evidence that supported their initial position.

      Psychologists have suggested that legends propagate by striking an emotional
      chord. In the same way, ideas can spread by emotional selection, rather than
      by their factual merits, encouraging the persistence of falsehoods about
      Coke - or about a presidential candidate.

      Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter
      misinformation by pointing out that it is not true. But by repeating a false
      rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger. In its concerted effort to
      "stop the smears," the Obama campaign may want to keep this in mind. Rather
      than emphasize that Obama is not a Muslim, for instance, it may be more
      effective to stress that he embraced Christianity as a young man.

      Consumers of news, for their part, are prone to selectively accept and
      remember statements that reinforce beliefs they already hold. In a
      replication of the study of students' impressions of evidence about the
      death penalty, researchers found that even when subjects were given a
      specific instruction to be objective, they were still inclined to reject
      evidence that disagreed with their beliefs.

      In the same study, however, when subjects were asked to imagine their
      reaction if the evidence had pointed to the opposite conclusion, they were
      more open-minded to information that contradicted their beliefs. Apparently,
      it pays for consumers of controversial news to take a moment and consider
      that the opposite interpretation may be true.

      In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court wrote that "the
      best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the
      competition of the market." Holmes erroneously assumed that ideas are more
      likely to spread if they are honest. Our brains do not naturally obey this
      admirable dictum, but by better understanding the mechanisms of memory
      perhaps we can move closer to Holmes' ideal.

      Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at
      Princeton, and Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature
      Neuroscience, are the authors of "Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your
      Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life."


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