December 6th, 2015


LJ Idol Friends & Rivals: "Healthy Skepticism"

Healthy Skepticism
idol friends and rivals | week 1 | 978 words
Trust everyone, but cut the cards.


If you are over a certain age (say, 22), you may find yourself thinking, "My brain isn't what it used to be."

The reality is, your brain was never quite as good or reliable as you thought. Your brain lies to you—usually not on purpose, but sometimes it can't help itself. It's what it does.

Your brain cannot be trusted.

The phrase, "Use it or lose it" describes one common shortcoming. The brain has finite storage space, and when you learn something new it tends to crowd something older out of the database. Not the oldest thing, either, but some random thing. The atomic weight of selenium? The 29th U.S. President, or your childhood phone number? Not so crucial. An area in which you used to be an expert, and for which you possibly still have passion or simply need to remember? Yikes!

The more often you access certain information, the more likely it is that you'll hang onto it. It's almost as if you're clearing weeds off of the path to that data each time you visit it. For information you use frequently, the path is familiar and you can clearly see your destination. For anything you haven't called upon in a while, there may be an entire jungle between you and the answer you're looking for. You may even forget that you ever knew it.

Forgetting what you've forgotten is one of the ways your brain turns against you.

Mislearning is another opportunity for trouble. A children's science book from my elementary-school years had a fine example that used a history mnemonic. Which of these is the helpful rhyme?

Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen-hundred ninety two.
Columbus sailed the deep blue sea in fourteen-hundred ninety three.

I think the correct choice is the first one, but I'm not entirely certain. Can I tell you how much I hate that someone came up with a second, equally plausible memory aid for that little factoid? That's one of the pitfalls of mislearning—once you acquire bad information, the chances of your thinking it's correct actually increase each time you wrongly select it as the right choice. It's as if you're making the path to the bad data deeper and easier to find. Who needs that?

If you've ever identified someone by the wrong name, you know how this works. It's better to have no idea what someone's name is than to have your brain invent one for you. Once your brain decides that a person looks like a particular name, it tends to keep making that association again and again unless you browbeat it into stopping. What does it mean for someone to "look" like a name, anyway? Well, your brain clearly has some idea, because it's happy to connect those dots and then superglue the results into place no matter how wrong they might be.

Accepting things as "fact" because they seem like they should or could be true is another pitfall. Stephen Colbert called that concept "truthiness"—something that you feel to the core just must be true. Why not make up your own facts? It's all the rage in politics these days. For the average person, it's not something you would try to do on purpose. If you think something is factual, it would be a terrible jolt to discover that your brain invented it for you!

A friend once received a job application in which the submitter listed the ability to "concoct databases". Typically, we want data gathered and saved. We don't want someone to fabricate so much of it that it requires large amounts of storage! (That kid was clearly hitting the Thesaurus a little too often—connotations, what AM they?)

Do you like to treat facts as a smorgasbord? A little bit from here, a little from there, and then you blend the pieces together like a newly-created recipe? No?

Your brain does.

It clumps together things that seem similar, and after a while, it may present them to you as if the resulting munge** was the original form! Not that you'll know—why should it tell you? It's probably already forgotten it even did that.

Fortunately, the Internet and computer age can help you verify the truth of things your brain throws at you. Yes, you probably need the spellchecker more often now, because computers have eroded your spelling abilities, but at least it balances out. The Internet is also there to help you spell labels and names, which is more challenging than ever. In my day (pulls out rocking chair), there was only one spelling of "Neil." We didn't suddenly have to do a paranoid check of whether someone we've blogged about spells his name in a weird way (Neal Gaiman, and yes he does).

Fact-checking is also important because of your brain's willingness to supply you with spurious information:
You: I think I'll write a piece on monasteries in the Middle Ages.
Your brain: Hey, I know something about that!
You: Do you?
Your brain: Absolutely! Of course I do. Wait, why are you looking at me like that?
There is probably a tradeoff. Perhaps when we had less access to information (and libraries and encyclopedias were needed if you ever hoped to verify the heavy-duty stuff), we were more cautious about what we thought we knew—our brains themselves, not just our egos. We had less bleeding in of false data, less mutated data, and less information-overload in general.

But now that there's so much to entertain us (bury us, confuse us), it's a different world.

Check your facts, check your arguments, check your knowledge. Why would you think you even know what you're talking about?

Because your brain told you so? What makes you think you can trust it? Oh, it told you that too?

Folks, we are right back where we started.


** This is a terrific word used in my profession (computer science). Done well, it's the same as merging something cohesively and correctly. But usually? It's this: 1. A derogatory term meaning to imperfectly transform information.

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