It’s Official: Zealots Have Screwed Up Brains

Safiyyah wrote a very cool post last week about

a new study that finds that Democrats and Republicans ignore information that contradicts their own point of view. By monitoring the brains of politically active individuals on both sides of the spectrum, the study demonstrates the lack of reasoning and the strong role bias plays in partisan decision-making[.]

According to the study:

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.”

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” Westen said. “Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.”

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.

Interesting stuff! This is something that has always frustrated me. It’s kind of like watching Dora the Explorer and getting all frustrated when Dora starts asking where something is. Dora, what do you mean, ‘where’s the bridge?’ It’s right behind you! Dora, are you friggin’ blind? Look at it!! It’s huge!! How can you not see that bridge?! Stunned as a bag of hammers, that’s what you are!! And of course, the problem applies to political partisans everywhere, not just in America.

How about religion? Safiyyah then asks the following question:

I wonder whether this study is translatable to other fields too. I’m curious to learn how Muslims might respond to this type of brain monitoring. Would we too ignore pertinent information for the sake of loyalty to our own faith?

She has already sort of answered her question earlier in the post when she says that she and her brother were

lamenting Muslims who were seemingly educated and thus capable of issuing stunning critiques of both thinkers and ideas within (and external to) their field of study, and yet, when it came to their own religion, those same individuals were reluctant or unable to subject their faith to a similar sort of rigorous intellectual analysis.

I think this phenomenon definitely applies to religion as well as politics. I think it’s just human nature to point out the faults of those we oppose while ignoring similar (or worse) faults in those we support. I remember going to hockey games with my father back in Cape Breton. If one of the goons from the opposing team so much as breathed on one of the home team’s players, the crowd would erupt and start frothing at the mouth and demanding the offending player be promptly drawn and quartered. But one of our goons could practically chop off an opposing player’s head with his stick and the only person who would incur the wrath of the crowd would be the referee after sending our guy to the penalty box. This is very common in sports, especially for die-hard supporters of a team.

As far as Islam goes, I’m often just as bewildered as Safiyyah by the contradictory behaviour of people who seem like they should know better. It’s sad but true: there are a lot of smart people out there who tend to believe, say, and do really stupid things, despite the oft-ignored truth (or at least a reasonable facsimile, or at least just something reasonable) being right in front of their faces.

In fact, I would say the problem is much worse when religion is involved. If you’re arguing with a political partisan, there’s always a chance you might be able to switch on a light in one of those dark rooms in their brains by pointing out a truth they’ve been ignoring. But if you’re arguing about a religious matter? Forget about it. Politics makes people think, speak, and act irrationally sometimes, but religion makes people’s eyes glaze over and blows out all the lights in those little rooms. If you’re good enough, you can convince someone that the leader of their favourite party is an idiot. But good luck tangling with someone’s deeply held religious views, no matter how nasty they may be. Heck, I’m beginning to wonder if any of those parts of the brain are ever active in religious zealots.

Now, I’m not necessarily willing to take this argument to the other extreme. I’m not one of those loons who think all religious belief is irrational. Hey, I’m a Muslim. I do believe in certain things that some people would say are irrational. I would suggest that such people read the Spanish philosopher Unamuno’s take on the reason/faith dichotomy. He believed that using reason alone will always lead one away from religion, but that such a conclusion can be damn depressing. So, sometimes you have to let faith leap over reason. Ironically, that could be the ultimate rational act. Letting reason guide you all the way and then letting faith win at the finish line. Pretty cool stuff. That’s something like what he said, anyway. I could be wrong, it’s been awhile since I read it. If he didn’t say it, then I am now. Anyway, to continue the analogy, I think the problem with a lot of religious zealots is that they dropped reason as soon as the starting gun was fired. Maybe the lighter load helps them run faster so the police won’t catch them after they’ve just torched an embassy, I don’t know.

Anyway, I try to look at every angle, to step back and look at the big picture (I am, after all, an ENFP). I can be just as critical of those I support as of those I oppose. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult for me to become a die-hard fan of any sports team.

But I am only human, you know, and I can be pretty passionate. Go Leafs!