Beliefs Don’t Change in “Real-Time”

An acquaintance of mine sent me a link to a conversation between Dan Dennett and Sam Harris, wherein Dennett attempts to explain the holes in Harris’s puerile arguments against the concept of “free will”.

In any case, this particular post isn’t about Harris, but a particular point he reiterates repeatedly: that we can (and should) change our beliefs “in real-time”.

This view, regardless of who holds it, is incorrect, and here’s why.

Before we can understand the problems with the claim, we need to understand some basic neuroscience.

Brain Structure

The brain, at bottom, consists of a large quantity of neurons being electrically stimulated, and which also release and absorb a large quantity and variety of neurochemicals. It’s an immensely complex system that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of.

Any particular thought you have is, in fact, the firing together of multiple neurons in different parts of the brain. That *set* of neurons represents a particular concept. A simple example would be the colour red, another would be the shape of a car, and another might be related to movement. So when seeing a moving, red car, those three *sets* of neurons fire. Depending on the shade of red, a slightly different set of red neurons might fire, likewise for different types of cars, likewise for different speeds, and so on. As true as this is for something visual, it is also true for any other idea, belief, or concept you may hold.

There’s a saying within neuroscience that seems to hold true: “neurons that fire together, wire together“. Take this to mean that if certain sets of neurons typically fire together, then triggering one set is likely to fire the other set(s). An example of how this works is when you experience again a scent that you haven’t encountered but in a single situation long ago: an old memory is immediately triggered. Smelling a musty book might cast one back decades to the bookshelf in a distant library, or the taste of a berry might send one into the memory of a childhood holiday.

As anyone with a semblance of understanding of brain activity is aware, the longer a pattern is held/activated, the more strongly those neurons ‘wire together’, and the more difficult it’s going to be to ‘dewire’ them, so to speak. If it were easy, psychiatry would be done, and we wouldn’t have the prevalence of maladaptive psychological states that we do.

Moreover, any conversation that I’m having with someone is largely being processed by the short-term memory, which rapidly fills up. Some of the information being processed there will be passed through the hippocampus/amygdala for encoding in the long-term memory, and even that is only temporary: proper encoding happens during sleep cycles. Do we have this entirely nailed down? Not yet, but this is a rough sketch of how it works.

Mistaken Rhetoric

Just so it’s clear that I’m not taking his claims out of context, I’ve transcribed where this first appears in the recording (from the 2:50 mark):

“…..that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind. This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: the virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real-time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception and other failures of rationality, and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent or well-intentioned the participants.”

I’ve emboldened a few relevant phrases that I’d like to focus on here, and they’re not separate points, but all symptomatic of the same underlying misunderstanding of how the brain actually works.

The following claims are built into the above quote:

  1. Hearing a good argument that runs counter to one you’ve held for a long time should cause those wired-together neurons to immediately dewire (“in real-time”).
  2. The more intelligent you are (whatever the hell that means), the more likely it is that your brain will do this.
  3. A failure to do this indicates that your brain is in some way broken (a failure of rationality, self-deception), or that you’re simply being emotional (motivated reasoning)

[Edit: to clarify, when I say “immediately”, I mean between hearing the argument and your next sleep-cycle, i.e. the point at which long-term memory encoding takes place]

Regarding the first assertion: our brains, as I’ve detailed above do not work in this way. What anyone familiar with the literature will tell you is that lightly held beliefs can be released easily and quickly, whereas beliefs that have been held for a long time are highly unlikely to be. Oftentimes it can take multiple conversations over the course of weeks, months or even years for people to reverse a long-held belief. To expect someone to change their mind over the course of even a one hour conversation, regardless of how long they’ve held a particular belief, is to declare that you don’t know anything at all about how the brain works.

Regarding the second assertion: we don’t have an agreed upon clinical definition of “intelligence”, so I have no idea what is being said here, beyond an ableist slur. How memory encodes, or how neurons fire together, is entirely independent of any current measure of “intelligence”, and it strikes as profoundly ignorant to conflate the two things.

Regarding the third assertion, it seems to be nothing more than a fairly standard complaint: people who don’t agree with me are mentally defective (please note that Harris’s complaint is said in the context of the ‘various scientists and philosophers that I’ve debated’). I’ve written before that I don’t believe “rationality” to be anything but an ableist slur (at best, it adds nothing useful to a conversation), and the above quote is an excellent example: ‘people who won’t change their mind when I tell them they’re wrong have broken brains’. Nevermind the fact that brains don’t work this way,

Finally, regarding motivated reasoning: all memories in well-functioning brains are passed through the amygdala and are thus motivated in some way. We all reason emotionally, and while we might do our best to tamp down how emotionally we express ourselves in order to maintain civil discourse, our brains are swimming in a sea of neurochemicals regardless of how much we tell ourselves otherwise.

Frankly, an exemplar of self-deception and motivated reasoning is any person claiming that they, alone, are being objective and unemotional, contrary to everyone else……

Ultimately, I’m a huge fan of Dennett, and this conversation just puts me in awe of his reserves of patience when dealing with someone so painfully ignorant of the topic of discussion. This is kind of worth a listen for Dennett alone, but I still only made it an hour through.

Addendum: this post isn’t about Harris, any comments focused on him are unlikely to make it through moderation. All assertions about brain-function should be referenced, feel free to let me know if I missed one.

Also, I’d like to thank One Minute Medical School for taking some time to look over this. Any remaining errors are mine and mine alone.

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