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06 December 2015 @ 02:24 pm
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.

If you enjoyed this story, you may vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

whipchick: pic#125642089whipchick on December 7th, 2015 04:18 pm (UTC)
So true - I've been doing some reading lately about the inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 7th, 2015 06:02 pm (UTC)
It's frustrating, too, that you try your hardest to remember what actually happened or is true... and your brain may still mutate it out from under you.

I didn't talk about "normalizing" here, but one of my college music teachers introduced me to that concept-- the smoothing out of anomalies to make something appear more like the familiar, even though the original information is correct! And again... you won't even know you're doing it unless someone brings it to your attention. :O
Didn't want to beanyonesghost on December 7th, 2015 04:41 pm (UTC)
Oh god why did someone invent that other rhyme. I was blissfully ignorant! Or maybe blissfully knowledgeable! And I have a hard enough time holding onto my childhood phone number without stuff like that happening!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 7th, 2015 06:04 pm (UTC)
Isn't that rhyme insidious? Do you know how many years ago it was that I first read that book's blurb on bad information? I think it must be 4 decades now. And yet, I remember both rhymes very clearly... just not which one was the right one. Argh!

I moved too many times to remember any of my childhood phone numbers, but I've noticed that information-crowding also erodes things like, "Where the heck did I park today?"
bleodsweanbleodswean on December 7th, 2015 11:07 pm (UTC)
Oh, brava! Brava!!! You sound as though you would make a FANTASTIC late night bottle of wine kind of friend! I adore this outloud musing and you are so correct!

I think google is making some of us so obnoxious with information. You say, "It's a beautiful day." and they quickfire their smartphone and wiki it and correct you. "No, it's not!"

And why are we so certain that the online source is accurate???
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 8th, 2015 02:28 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! I had fun writing this, though the truth behind it can be a little frustrating at times. I didn't even cover things like brain farts, which could be summarized as, "Why the HELL are my keys in the freezer?"

We've tried to help our kids be skeptical of what they read on the Internet (and god, the horror of having your child say, "What's a card catalogue?"), but it hasn't stuck.

And I just now went to look up the spelling of "skeptical" to see if should be "c" or the "k" I originally used (because who needs unintended irony?) Turns out the U.S. and Canada do use the "k", and other English-speaking areas tend to use the "c".

I feel better now...
rayasorayaso on December 7th, 2015 11:34 pm (UTC)
This was great! I was laughing while reading this, which I rarely do. Of course, I have an advantage: I know this brain! Unfortunately the confusion only gets worse with age. "Never trust your brain" makes for a good, if confusing, philosophy. Truly enjoyable!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 8th, 2015 07:18 am (UTC)
You may know this brain better than I do, since you have the outsider's view of it and not, "No really, listen to me. Would I lie to you? Here's how it goes..."

I think your brain can usually be trusted to remember things like how to walk and to work buttons. But specific actual facts? Well, yes, but... which ones?
Danmuchtooarrogant on December 8th, 2015 03:54 am (UTC)
"If you've ever identified someone by the wrong name ..."

This has been driving me crazy lately. There's a lady who just joined our team at work, and whenever I try to send or copy her on an e-mail, I "always" replace her last name with the wrong one.

"Why isn't Outlook pulling that up?"

"Because you entered it wrong!"

GRRR! I hate my brain.

Great entry!

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 8th, 2015 07:20 am (UTC)
"Because you entered it wrong!"

Hahahaha! It's funny how persistent the brain can be about assigning someone the wrong name. When people call me by the wrong name, it's almost always Kathy (once, Kathleen). The fact that they converge on the same wrong name is kind of interesting!
(no subject) - muchtooarrogant on December 8th, 2015 01:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
adoptedwriteradoptedwriter on December 8th, 2015 01:12 pm (UTC)
Have you ever watched the show, Brain Games?http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/brain-games/ This piece reminds me of that program. Fun show.
One of my greatest teaching challenges is getting LD kids to "un learn" stuff they've mislearned.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 8th, 2015 08:04 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen that show-- I'll have to check it out.

I've definitely seen a few online things here and there that try to trick your brain into "glitching", and generally... they succeed. :O

I think unlearning bad information is tough for everyone. The first step is believing that it's bad information, which is harder than you might think.
Murielle: I'm Melting...murielle on December 8th, 2015 05:46 pm (UTC)
Thoroughly enjoyed this. A good read where I learned a little something and was able to relate to a lot. I thank you, though my brain is a tad huffy at the moment. ;-)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 8th, 2015 08:05 pm (UTC)
though my brain is a tad huffy at the moment. ;-)
Because it has been busted! The brain is so sure it's right. And that is half the problem when it's wrong!

Glad you enjoyed this. Thank you!
Raised by Wolvessinnamongirl on December 8th, 2015 06:29 pm (UTC)
So that little brain conversation is basically what happened every time I tried to write a paper for my (failed) grad school attempt. I know this! Research - no you don't know this. Brains = tricky little beasts.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 8th, 2015 08:08 pm (UTC)
It's aggravating how much the brain thinks it knows that it really, really doesn't. Sometimes it thinks a few passing factoids make it an expert, and other times it takes a little bit of information and expands it into more! More! The fakitude of the 'more' slips past its notice, and therefore... usually its owner's notice, too. :O
(no subject) - sinnamongirl on December 9th, 2015 07:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
swirlsofblueswirlsofblue on December 8th, 2015 08:10 pm (UTC)
A brilliant, intriguing and amusing analysis.

And so true! I have had many random things I just thought were true and I have no idea where they came from.

I did a term in witness testimony and you see how easily the mind it tricked, it has an automated 'fill in the blank' way of doing things. They compared witness testimony to the actual film of events, wildly differed depending on persons world view.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 9th, 2015 07:39 am (UTC)
it has an automated 'fill in the blank' way of doing things.
It's so dismaying to hear that, because we depend on witness testimony so much, but it's very true of how the brain works. Normalize, fill in, invent. Why not? The truth, what does it matter?

I often wonder, regarding dreams, where all the faces come from in a "crowd scene." I suspect the brain is recycling images it saw in a movie or perhaps an actual crowd, because why not? Creating new people is a lot of work! But to the waking mind, that kind of "recycling" just muddies the truth all over again!
orockthroorockthro on December 9th, 2015 01:24 am (UTC)
I was ignorant of that second rhyme. O__O What an evil thing to create! I'm impressed. *insert evil grin*
Good stuff, though. It's important to remember how fallible our thinking not can be, but is.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 9th, 2015 07:42 am (UTC)
Isn't that second rhyme terrible? I think I was 8 when I read that (with very little sense of who Columbus was anyway), but did it ever stick! Based on how good the rhymes are at delivering the same type of information, you can see how they would lump together and the sense of the "real" one would vanish. :O

Glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for reading and commenting!
prog_schlockprog_schlock on December 9th, 2015 03:32 am (UTC)
A friend of mine had a mild stroke recently. The main way it manifested itself was a kind of word and name/meaning disassociation. For example, his wife tells me when I first visited him in the hours after the stroke, he couldn't remember who I was. Until he saw me, at which point he remembered 100% of things related to me. In fact, his memory comes back when he sees pictures of things. Like he might not know a duck exists, but show him a picture of a duck and every duck related thing in his brain is accessible to him again. So his memory is coming back pretty quickly.

What's fascinating is that when you chat with him online now, his main response to things is "I see," which is something he almost never said before. The brain, right?

Anyhow, this is a fascinating entry and one that was well worth reading.

The song that immediately spring to mind here is "Baby Doll" by Laurie Anderson.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 9th, 2015 07:46 am (UTC)
Wow. The story about your friend is fascinating, especially because it doesn't sound as if everything was image-triggered before. But it's lucky that it works for him-- for a lot of people, information that goes away mostly stays gone.

I've met a couple of people who are very much contextual learners, and that can make things challenging for them. They almost need a framework (even an artificial one) to hang ideas on to understand how they work together.

I hadn't heard that Laurie Anderson song. I used to listen to some of her stuff back in my college years ("Oh, Superman"), so I'll have to try that one out. Comments in my journal that contain links sometimes get flagged as spam, and I'm not sure why. Probably the style I'm using? It's obnoxious, though, so sorry about that.
(no subject) - prog_schlock on December 10th, 2015 02:19 am (UTC) (Expand)
inteus_mika: Little help?inteus_mika on December 9th, 2015 04:49 am (UTC)
Enjoyed being made to think in this way. Can relate to the bit about misinformation. Have had similar experiences with word spellings. I agree that to read of a skill in "concocting databases" would be an alarming jolt to the senses.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 9th, 2015 07:49 am (UTC)
I'm of the generation where "dilemna" was taught as the correct spelling of the word, and then people recently decided that the reasoning behind it was bogus, and that it should always have been "dilemma" (with 'lemma' being a root in the word). Well, I have unlearned that bit of misinformation, finally, but I resent that the truth is the truth! Because it looks like a kindergartener's version of spelling!

So I rebel by avoiding using the word now. That's probably the wrong approach, but there it is. :O
Teo Sayseternal_ot on December 9th, 2015 08:51 am (UTC)
O man! I was nodding my head to most of it..what a unique approach to the topic..and so True. I liked the word 'munge'..:) Great read! Mind-boggling actually..;)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 9th, 2015 05:45 pm (UTC)
"Munge" is great, isn't it? I love words that sound like what they actually mean, and to me, that one definitely does!
Your argument is invalid.logical_fallacy on December 9th, 2015 12:36 pm (UTC)
I never trust my brain. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 9th, 2015 05:45 pm (UTC)
You are a step ahead of most of us, then! :D
mamas_minionmamas_minion on December 9th, 2015 10:48 pm (UTC)
Great, now I have to worry about my brain lying to me to. j/k
Did you know that your brain can also alter your own memories of events you've experienced. So you cannot even trust your own memories are real.

Edited at 2015-12-09 10:49 pm (UTC)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on December 10th, 2015 12:13 am (UTC)
Did you know that your brain can also alter your own memories of events you've experienced?
Yes-- it's disturbing, isn't it? Sometimes we call it "selective memory" (where we remember what we like better than the reality, or forget parts that we don't like-- and it's not even necessarily intentional!)

I've seen this with my parents, and I kind of fear knowing that I'll probably do this one day too! If it hasn't already happened... :O