Here’s why you’re not smart enough

An interesting
article in The New York Times
describes how the way in which the brain forms memories can, over time,
lead to false information from noncredible sources being reinterpreted as true. The article notes that this may explain why
smear campaigns can be so effective in politics: those who spread misinformation ‘know that if
their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it
is debunked’—and the rehashing of false information by victims during their defence simply adds to its plausibility in
the long term.
  It seems, then, that
what we believe may often be based not on truth or credibility, but on repetition and emotional
resonance. 

Revelations
like this are unsettling because they reveal a discrepancy between the view we
hold of ourselves as (on the whole) rational, truth-seeking, and open-minded,
and the way in which we really process information. We may understandably worry that, if we’re
not even built for selectively acquiring credible information and believing
truths, we are surely fighting a losing battle when we try to improve ourselves
through education and study. If, as a
study cited by the article demonstrated, students at a top American university
can be coaxed by simple repetition into believing the unsubstantiated claim that Coca-Cola makes an
effective paint-thinner, what hope can there be for improving the minds of the rest
of society?

One solution might be to publicise useful
information about how the brain works, in a way that can be easily
understood and usefully interpreted by the public.  Learning that our brains work in unexpected
ways is unsettling only if it shatters long-held illusions about the way in
which we think that we think. Better
understanding of our own minds could help us remain alert to potentially
misleading information (such as that discussed in the article), and could help
us adjust the way in which we think so as to make the best of our
mental abilities.  For example, that our
attention span broadens with age
suggests that the highly-focused study methods
we adopt in our teens and early twenties may not be the best way to learn as
we grow older,
and understanding the various ways in which memory works could help improve
our ability to remember the information we want to remember.
These are speculative suggestions, but
in a culture in which the public is constantly berated for failing to respond
to calls to stop smoking, stop binge drinking, save money for old age, and
do more exercise, it seems highly relevant to question why well-intended information
campaigns can fail to hit home.  Educating
people about their own minds could equip them with the cognitive tools they
need to select and use important information to improve their lives.

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