Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Haunted By...

When I was a lot younger, I recall a conversation I had with my mother. I don't actually remember much of the conversation; how it started; what it was mostly about. But what I do remember was what she said regarding people of strong faith. She said how much she envied that part of some people who were able to believe so strongly in something without proof (such as God - but that's not at all my point here).

I think that she craved something of that blind certainty. To have an unshakable belief that withstands the onslaughts of others' beliefs, conflicting evidence, and oftentimes even logic or reason.

At the time, I was able to understand that craving. But it wasn't quite the same. My craving derived from a desire to know. For the most part, I didn't know a lot, and knew that I didn't know a lot. The idea of truly knowing an answer to some BIG question really appealed to me. That was what I thought she meant.

In hindsight, though, I think she envied the concept of faith in an "ignorance is bliss" sort of way. I'd like to think, though, that if she had the choice to slip into a state of faith based on ignorance, she would not.

For myself at the time, I naïvely expected a direct positive relationship between education and a strong sense of knowing. Yet, after 30 or so years, I still find myself wistful for that strong sense of knowing. In fact, my sense is that the more I know, the more I doubt.

Looking around me, I see people who have strong beliefs, nonetheless. It makes me feel as though I am doing something wrong. So I examine these people's beliefs more closely - hoping to see whatever it is that they see that makes them so certain. They may point to the "evidence" for their strong beliefs, but all I see are fractures, weak or missing supports, misunderstanding, ignorance, irrelevance, or loud smoke.

What I mean by "loud smoke" comes from the way my father would occasionally argue his points. He would simply raise his voice and wave his arms around while smoking a cigarette. So he would literally become a loud puff of smoke that just kept repeating his viewpoint without any obvious justification. So to me, "loud smoke" is just a belief that is yelled really loudly and is about as solid as smoke.

Going to school and learning about psychology has shorn away many of the supports I would otherwise imagine myself relying upon to justify beliefs. On the one hand, it is depressing for me because I feel less and less confident that I will ever hold a strong belief, but on the other hand I find it really fascinating how people's minds work that allows them to hold strong beliefs. In other words, it is amazing all the tools we have, use, and develop to sustain our beliefs! So at least I am able to replace my loss with the gain of learning about some pretty cool stuff!

So anyway, here is a PARTIAL list of reasons why I don't believe anything too strongly:
  • False Memory: There are all sorts of memory problems revealed in psychology (reconstruction effects, implantation effects, degradation effects, etc.). My first experience with the fallibility of memory came when I was walking around the streets of Haverhill with my cousins and their friends. I must have been in sixth or seventh grade at the time. We came upon another group of kids across the street. For some reason, one of the guys in our group thought that someone on the other side deserved to have a rock thrown at them. He picked up a stone and hurled it across the street and nailed one of the guys over there. We all took off running. (No, it was not me throwing rocks - trust me; I couldn't hit the ground if I aimed at it.)

    Later (months) I was in school and some kid came up to me and started yelling that I had thrown a rock at him and he was going to get me back! At first I had no idea what the hell he was yelling about, but after a bit, I realized he was the boy that had been hit by the rock a while back. I tried to explain that it wasn't me that had thrown the rock, but he was adamant that it WAS me because he never forgets a face and he would certainly never forget such a mean thing that was done to him nor who had done it.

    At the time, I shared with him the same naïve view of memory. We both apparently believed that memory was a biological recorder of events. What people stored in memory was perfectly accurate, although it could have holes (like when we forget something - it's just missing information). Therefore, I assumed this kid was lying about what happened because he had no idea who the real rock-thrower person was, and never would. BUT, he remembered seeing ME there and was therefore only going to be able to exact revenge on the next best person; someone who had been part of the enemy group of rock-throwers; me!

    Nowadays, I know he wasn't deliberately lying. He probably truly believed I was the rock-thrower. His memory was inaccurate, but he believed his memory was flawless. He held a strong belief based on corrupted data. But unlike a computer that can potentially analyze a memory drive and determine that it is bad, with human memory, we have no way of knowing what memories are good and which are bad. It ALL feels like GOOD memory! DOUBT.

  • Sensory Events: Having learned a pretty good amount about how the senses work, and especially how perception occurs, I know that even direct experiences with the world can be misleading. Just off the top of my head, here are some things that contribute to my doubts about what I see, hear, taste, touch, or smell about the world around me:

    (1) Expectancy effects. (2) Constancy effects. (3) Phantosmia (and I'd include parosmia here too). (4 & 5) Hypnagogia and hypnopompia (accompanied by sleep paralysis). (6) Exploding head syndrome. (7+) Tactile hallucinations (e.g., feeling of bugs crawling on our skin, called formication; inability to locate an itchy spot; also what I call the voodoo effect - when you suddenly feel as though you are being poked by a needle for no apparent reason [a nociceptive illusion]; etc.). (8) Migraine aura (fortification illusion, photopsia, and scintillating scotoma). (9) Sleep paralysis. (10) Peduncular hallucinosis (I have a friend who experiences this - he is visited by Death, you know, cloaked and hooded skeleton carrying a scythe). (11) Synesthesia. (12) Tinnitus (hearing a [usually] high-pitched sound even though no sound is present). (13) Apophenia (and of course, pareidolia). (14) Autokinetic effect (perception of movement when there is no anchoring/orienting information, e.g., a small dot of light in an otherwise dark environment will appear to bounce and float around - it's really just our eyes moving, but we can't tell that because there is not enough visual information available to lock our eyes onto.) (15) Ideomotor effect (unconscious physical movements that affect objects in our vicinity that we then attribute to outside or paranormal sources - instead of to ourselves). (16) Pupil response (can make us think we see shadows). (17) Entoptic Phenomena (e.g., scratches on our corneas or junk in our eyes (the vitreous), can be seen under the right conditions and confused for objects and events in the world around us [cf. blue field entopic phenomenon]). (18+) Not to mention all of the ways our sensory world gets messed up when we drink, are over-tired, experiment with drugs, etc.

    Of course, I'm not even listing here the possible (1) chronoceptive (losing track of time; feeling as though time is going slower or faster than usual; stopped; etc.), (2) equilibrioceptive (shifts in sense of balance that can not only make one feel dizzy, but also that they were pushed, or that gravity has shifted, etc.), (3) proprioceptive (Oliver Sack's writes about this in A Leg to Stand On - e.g., when our body parts feel foreign; like they do not belong to us), and (4) thermoceptive (temperature based) illusions people can experience (we don't really sense temperature, but shifts in thermal conductivity - when heat is drawn from our skin, we sense cold; when heat enters our tissue, we sense warmth. It's all relative.).

  • Psychological Illusions: We fool ourselves all the time with our little cognitive tricks. Sometimes we do so to protect our ego (see Social Psychology texts for more of these); sometimes to protect a belief; sometimes just to make it easier to process our complex world; and sometimes without even realizing it - out of habit.

    (1) Confirmation bias (e.g., focus on "hits" and ignore "misses"). (2) Hindsight bias. (3) Availability heuristic. (4) Representativeness heuristic. (5) Assuming causation from correlation. (6) Need for certainty. (7) Change blindness & Inattention blindness. (8) Repetition blindness. (9) Dissociation (in this case we see people apparently doing this whilst "channeling" or exhibiting "demonic possession" [epilepsy?]). (10) And so on.

  • Less Common Psychological Issues: Although these are much less common than the above (since the above can occur to everyone, whereas these are specific to only a subset), they are still possibilities that come to mind when I hear people I don't know talk about their strong beliefs or the strong beliefs of folks they know. That is, I cannot rule out these issues as contributing to others' beliefs.

    (1) Schizophrenia (the biggest one in this list, as well as any other psychotic disorders that can contribute to paracusia, etc.). (2) Delirium tremens. (3) Lewy body dementia (via Parkinson's disease). (4) Alzheimer's disease. (5) Epilepsy. (6) Narcolepsy. (7) Fever induced hallucinations. (8) ETC.!
So many mundane possibilities to account for the many strange beliefs we may form... and this is only a partial list! It's enough to make one's head spin! (Call an exorcist!) I haven't even listed the effects of deliberate lies people tell, hoaxes perpetrated, misunderstandings generated by poor language choices, and so on.

With so many possible competing sources of why we might believe something, you may wonder why we should believe anything! But we do. Our daily survival depends on believing potentially faulty information. Our confidence is increased whenever multiple sources of information converge on a single possibility (or a limited number of them). The more likely our survival depends on forming a good (accurate/true) belief, the more careful we are in considering the sources (usually).

On the other hand, when safety and survival are not directly affected by our particular choice of beliefs, THEN we seem to chigger into any old belief regardless of the evidence.

Ultimately, I think that people simply are unaware of how many ways we can be misled into trusting information used to support a particular belief (especially paranormal beliefs). In a way, then, I suspect that many people are enjoying the bliss of ignorance as they sustain their strong beliefs.

These are the cases that interest me from a psychological standpoint. These are the cases of strong belief that part of me yearns after, but a much larger part of me cannot accept; simply because I am haunted by all of these doubts.

Aren't you?