Certainty and Addiction, Pattern-Making

A couple of interesting insights in this SciAm article, “The Certainty Bias: A Potentially Dangerous Mental Flaw,” written by neurologist Robert Burton:

First, that thinking, learning, and “feeling certain” stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers (“the mesolimbic dopamine system primarily located in the upper brain stem”) similarly to the way that “cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol, nicotine and gambling” do:

“It is quite likely that the same reward system provides the positive feedback necessary for us to learn and to continue wanting to learn. The pleasure of a thought is what propels us forward; imagine trying to write a novel or engage in a long-term scientific experiment without getting such rewards. Fortunately, the brain has provided us with a wide variety of subjective feelings of reward ranging from hunches, gut feelings, intuitions, suspicions that we are on the right track to a profound sense of certainty and utter conviction. And yes, these feelings are qualitatively as powerful as those involved in sex and gambling. One need only look at the self-satisfied smugness of a ‘know it all’ to suspect that the feeling of certainty can approach the power of addiction.”

Second (and evidenced in some studies), Burton suggests that we are more likely to “retreat into absolute ideologies … during periods of confusion, lack of governmental direction, economic chaos and information overload. At bottom, we are pattern recognizers who seek escape from ambiguity and indecision. If a major brain function is to maintain mental homeostasis, it is understandable how stances of certainty can counteract anxiety and apprehension.  Even though I know better, I find myself somewhat reassured (albeit temporarily) by absolute comments such as, ‘the stock market always recovers,’ even when I realize that this may be only wishful thinking.”


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