Moving From Me To We BlogMoving From Me To We Blog

Feeling Certain? How Our Brains Betray Us

Within seconds, an expert can look at a fake painting and know it is not the work of a master. So wrote Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink. How? Because the expert’s gut feeling is “perfectly rational.”

Not so, writes Robert A. Burton, M.D.in his book, On Being Certain. Even though we may feel certain (“objective”) about our conclusions, we are often “subjectively” wrong.

Just like love or anger, certainty is an emotion, not a rational process.

Burton’s book provides a warning for the times we dig in, knowing we are right and they are wrong. As Deborah Tannen pointed out, in The Argument Culture, such a right/wrong approach to politics, religion and media coverage has affected our memories, conversations and relationships. Burton describes a study in which students expressed strong confidence, three years after the Challenger space shuttle exploded, that their false memories of the explosion were more accurate than descriptions they had written down one day after the event. Certainty, this neurologist suggests, “is not a conscious choice, nor a thought process, but a sensation that can best be described as a “feeling of knowing.”

How does this involuntary feeling of knowing happen to us?

Burton compares the way we feel certain to the “hidden layer” that serve as the starting place in creating artificial neural networks (ANNs). As individuals use these systems online, say at Amazon, their searching and buying behavior fills in their unique hidden layer of how they choose to their future choices. That,notes Burton is how ANNs can play chess and poker, read faces, recognize speech – and recommend books at Amazon. Our brains also have a hidden layer that influences what we think we experience and creates a strong sense of knowing that we are right. At least we are “predictably irrational. Burton concludes that this hidden layer “is the interface between incoming sensory data and a final perception, the anatomic crossroad where nature and nurture intersect. It is why your red is not my red, your notion of beauty isn’t mine, why eyewitnesses offer differing accounts of an accident or why we don’t all put our money on the same roulette number.” Hear his interview with the inimitable Michael Krasny.

Like David Dobbs, I believe this is one of the most timeless and most readable science books (yet how can I be certain?) After all, we create our own reality. How are you swayed? In the Me to We spirit, Burton’s message could be viewed as another reason to collaborate with those who have a different view (and perhaps talent) yet who share a common interest or goal.

My conclusion: Rather than focusing on our differences, we are better off seeking a sweet spot of mutual opportunity. Then we can accomplish more together than apart, and, in working together, perhaps alter our views on what we’re certain is true. Such an approach is increasingly powerful in our often disruptive, hotly divisive world.

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