Thursday, November 11, 2010

Brain Rewards

Recently someone gave me an article by Richard Beck called "Certainty and Dogmatism: The Feeling of Knowing." Beck's comments, in turn, are based on the book ON BEING CERTAIN: BELIEVING YOU ARE RIGHT EVEN WHEN YOU'RE NOT, by Robert Burton. Burton and Beck propose that "knowing is a feeling." The "tip of the tongue" experience ("I know that, I just can't remember it") illustrates that the feeling of knowledge can be separated from the content of knowledge. We experience this "feeling of knowing" or "feeling of conviction" as rewarding in itself, an obvious evolutionary advantage for large-brained mammals. Knowing in itself feels good, produces pleasure. The down side of this reward system is that once we think we've found the right answer, the pleasurable emotion discourages us from seeking alternatives. We've already reached our goal, so why bother looking further? Open-minded people, Beck suggests, are those who can resist the temptation to bask in the pleasure of the first satisfying answer they arrive at. In effect, the feeling of knowledge works on our neurological circuits like alcohol or ice cream. As Beck puts it, "People might need a diet from certainty." This brain phenomenon helps to explain the prevalence of confirmation bias. Once we've settled on a side in a controversy, we tend to notice evidence that supports our belief and ignore or automatically reject evidence to the contrary.

Here's an article from NEWSWEEK on reasoning and confirmation bias:

Limits of Reason

Evolution may actually favor irrationality. The marshaling of arguments, says this article, serves the purpose of persuading other people to support our position. For that purpose, emotional appeals work better than rational and logical arguments. Therefore, evolution supports such phenomena as confirmation bias and what the article calls "motivated reasoning." Spock would be appalled.

Not that Vulcans necessarily evolved differently. The STAR TREK universe tells us that in their early history Vulcans were a passionate, violent species. They achieved their reliance on rationality and logic by hard-won self-discipline.

Also on the subject of neurological reward processes, the human brain may be hard-wired to love curves. Not just in appreciation of natural images—people's response to abstract paintings and sculptures depends heavily on the presence and shape of curves:

Baltimore Sun

All intelligent species probably experience "knowing" as pleasurable and positively reinforcing, but what about the preference for curves? A species evolved in a different physical environment or having a nonhuman body structure might be left unmoved by what we see as the beauty of curves. Many extraterrestrials would probably have esthetic standards as alien to us as their biology. They might like angles better. They might even see additional dimensions besides the three visible to us, not to mention the likelihood that they'd see colors differently. (Lots of Earth creatures see other parts of the spectrum from what human vision perceives.) When we try to communicate with aliens, we will have to take into account esthetic and emotional gaps as well as differences based on purely intellectual brain wiring.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Thanks! I found this fascinating. Still mulling over it, in fact.