On Being Certain As An Affective Disorder

In 1999, my family accompanied me on a business trip to England. Another Dem and Anomalily were walking in Regent Park when they encountered a man walking a dog. They asked him, "Does your dog bite?" He said, "No," and when they went to pet the dog it snapped at them. They looked up at him, horrified.

Unapologetic, he said, "This is not my dog."

You may think this is stolen from the Pink Panther movie, but my wife and daughter swear that it happened to them. And, what's more odd is that when they would recount this story, I would be certain that I was there, even though it's provable that I was not. (I was in Reading that day.)

This review is about that feeling of certainty: that feeling that something is "right", despite the evidence. On Being Certain: Believing When You Are Right Even When You Are Not by Robert A. Burton, MD, makes the case that the feeling of "rightness" is a fundamental human emotion, a reward system honed by natural selection to augment our recently-evolved ability for abstract thought. But, like other parts of our brain, it can misfire and operate independently of critical thinking.

The book starts with a evocation of the "feeling of knowing" using an excellent tool: a short, seemingly nonsensical paragraph. The reader is invited to read it thoroughly, think about it, before being handed a clue that "locks in" an interpretation. Here it is; read from the top of page 5:

From this examination of what it feels to know, we go on to review how we know what we know. Burton examines the mutability of our own memories and the certainties we have, using an experiment conducted on some college students around the mid-80's. The day after the Challenger exploded, Ulric Neisser asked his class to write down everything they remembered about the event. A couple of years later, they were asked to orally recount the same events. One-quarter of the students had all the details different than their written accounts; less than 10% agreed with their written accounts. One student said, "That's my handwriting, but that's not what happened."

"Does your memory bite?" "Well, that's not my memory."

What they misremembered was wrong, but it felt right. Likewise, Dr. Burton describes various pathologies where the feeling of certainty is at odds with the facts at hand, from John "Beautiful Mind" Nash's belief that coronation as the Emperor of Antarctica was imminent to a young woman with Cotard's syndrome, who is certain that she herself is dead even when she can feel her own pulse.

What all these sum up to, Dr. Burton contends, is that "Conviction is not a choice." Due to the fact that feelings of certainty can be aroused by direct brain stimulation, that feeling must be part of the wetware we all have. It can misfire as unreliably as your fear-inducing amygdala can when it interprets that dust bunny caught on your bedspread as a spider about to crawl on you.

And that gets into the mechanisms of how the mind works. Dr. Burton uses a variety of sources, from John Searle to Stephen Pinker, to advocate for a modular, society-of-mind view of our inner mental workings. Remember that old trope about how we don't use 90% of our brains? Well, that's wrong, but it may be true that 95% of our thoughts are below the level of conscious awareness. It is demonstrably true that our brains warp time and perception to make reality comprehensible to an organism that adapted from swinging through trees to running down antelope: If you take a light-based message board, designed to scroll a message across like the news feed in Times Square, and alternate colors in each row of lights, your brain will edit the perception of reality to provide the illusion of motion. If there is a red light next to a green light, with the green light turning on a short interval after the red light turns off, your brain will edit the perception so that the green light comes on exactly half that short interval earlier to provide continuity.

Your brain changes your perceptions to provide comfort and continuity to your awareness.

"Does your thought bite?" "That's not my thought."

Dr. Burton tries to get us to be conscious of when a thought begins, and riffs on the "sense of self" to think about what the brain whould need to do to make us aware of when a thought ends: the sense of knowing.

The central problem, Dr. Burton says, is that this adaptive mechanism, this limbic reward pellet, is as prone to misfire as many of our other systems. Just as a severe depression produces feelings of worthlessness have nothing to do with our value to the world, our sense of knowing can fire when we know not.

Like when conservatives say they know the Iraq War was the right thing to do, regardless of the lack of WMD's. Or when liberals say you must decrease class sizes to increase student performance. Or when I say that I was there when the Pink Panther guy talked to my family in Regent Park.

I found this to be a little gem of a book--only 224 pages with 18 pages of footnotes. I appreciate his arguments about the uncontrollability of the sense of knowing, but I'm not sure I'd throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to mistrusting it. Just as sometimes a person will get depressed because there truly is something wrong with their lives, you'll get that feeling of knowing because you have actually come to a valid conclusion from the evidence. Dr. Burton makes the point that you can't ever trust the feeling, and after reading his book I'm not sure I disagree.

The key thing is to know when to trust the evidence, and when to have a decent respect of the opinions of mankind when it comes to your own self. And, after reading the book, I think Luke just got lucky here:

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