The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

Skeptics and Left Brain Pitfalls

Lately, I’ve been devoting some energy and time to understanding skepticism.  There is clearly some sort of process failure going on in the minds of people who demonstrate such overwhelming resistance to psi phenomena because the behavior that they display is so completely at odds with their intelligence.  In fact, skeptics are typically very smart people, which makes their behavior all the more odd.  It’s called pseudo skepticism and there are common traits associated with it:

  1. Denying, when only doubt has been established

  2. Double standards in the application of criticism

  3. The tendency to discredit rather than investigate

  4. Presenting insufficient evidence or proof

  5. Assuming criticism requires no burden of proof

  6. Making unsubstantiated counter-claims

  7. Counter-claims based on plausibility rather than empirical evidence

  8. Suggesting that unconvincing evidence provides grounds for completely dismissing a claim

Another common feature widely observed among skeptics is an aversion to confronting contradictory evidence at all.  When skeptics are asked to read through evidence that runs counter to their views, they typically don’t.  Or of those who do look at the evidence will typically latch on to the first thing that looks like they might be able to argue against and stop there.  Most importantly, they seem to never take a step back and look at the evidence as a whole.  When new evidence is introduced, no matter how convincing, it fails to make a dent in their point of view.  Much of this skepticism comes from academicians and the sciences where one would presumably least expect it.  What stands out about these patterns of behavior is that they reflect a lack of holistic (right brain) thinking.

At first I thought that perhaps these people were simply right brain deficient, but that is not true.  Some are musicians, some are magicians and others display other forms of creativity.  The idea that skepticism is associated with right brain deficiencies might be true in some cases, but not all.  It is not a determining factor.  So what could be happening?  The answer, it turns out, may be a bit more complicated, but not overly so.  The behavior of skeptics towards psi phenomena is very similar to the behavior of people with right side brain damage.  The only difference here is that skeptics don’t have right side brain damage, which means that something else is mimicking this effect.  It appears that the left brain of skeptics is failing to connect adequately with their right brain, either through overuse of the left brain faculties, a predisposition to left brain functions or a combination thereof.  Regardless of the cause, when that happens, the left brain, which depends on the right side to grasp context, simply fills in on its own, making nonsense solutions to problems as long as the gap is filled.

Here is an animated video by psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist which clearly and easily outlines the scope of the problem:

(I’m oversimplifying the whole left/right thing.  In reality, it is far more complicated with both parts of the brain being used to varying degrees, but sometimes it’s necessary to simplify things to get some sort of understanding.)

Here’s what happens in people who have right side brain damage:

But to the researchers’ surprise, brain damage in the patients who displayed denial tended to occur in the front part of the brain, particularly in the circuits that control movements and the planning of movements and in a region that helps produce feelings about the body.

Dr. Berti said these regions appeared to work together to generate, plan and perceive actions. They also generate self-awareness of actions.

Denial seems to arise from the fact that in patients who display the disorder, a related brain area is less affected or unaffected, Dr. Berti said. Called the supplementary motor area, it is involved in the mental simulation of movements. When athletes close their eyes and imagine a golf swing or skiing motion, this part of the brain is activated.

When patients who display denial are asked to raise an arm or clap their hands, the region that imagines these movements produces a familiar pattern of brain activation, showing normal or close to normal function, Dr. Berti said.

But the regions that maintain awareness of movements and carry them out are not working. The conflict between these regions, she said, becomes overwhelming.

The sense of having moved is powerful but awareness is absent. The solution for the paralyzed patient is to confabulate. If prodded for hours, patients will make up stories to explain their lack of action, Dr. Berti said.

One man said his motionless arm did not belong to him. When it was placed in his right visual field, he insisted it was not his.

“Whose arm is it?” Dr. Berti asked.

“Yours,” he said.

“Are you sure?” Dr. Berti persisted. “Look here, I only have two hands.”

The patient replied: “What can I say? You have three wrists. You should have three hands.”

Confabulating, -making up stories to fill an unresolved conflict- in conjunction with denial is a left brain trait.  The left side of our brain is often attributed as the seat of rational thought, but in reality, it is only the seat of linear, logical thought and requires the right brain to make this thought process rational.  For the left brain, any linear, logical thought, no matter how irrational it is, will do, as long as the blank is filled in.  Once an outcome has been chosen, (“the arm doesn’t belong to me”) the left brain will endlessly fill in the blanks to support that conclusion.  This is almost always coupled with anger and irritation when corrected, coupled with a lack of empathy; intolerance for ambiguity and an inability to understand a competing point of view.

To anyone who has argued with a parapsychology skeptic, this will sound very familiar.  Entire books have been written documenting all the different and nonsensical ways that skeptic refute parapsychology.  (Here is an extensive list.) The denial behavior of skeptics and people with right brain damage correlate so closely that making a connection between the two is called for.  Yet, as I said, skeptics don’t have brain damage and seem to have perfectly viable right brain functions.  There is nothing physically wrong with them.

So what is going on?  It’s very likely that this has to do with certain functions of the corpus callosum; the part of the brain that provides the connection between the two halves of the brain.  It appears to do a very good job of shutting out the right side.  Men do this much more than women.  It shows up particularly in skeptics where men outnumber women by as much as 50 to 1.  This has its advantages:  A left brained person with this trait would be able to shut out unwanted stimuli without exerting a great deal of focus.  Their ability to focus would be a great attribute.  It would be easier to be single minded.  Such people would be less curious, but better at grinding out the ordinary day to day tasks so essential to success.  The left brain is responsible for decisiveness and taking action, which often have positive personal results in the real world. In other words, this is a perfectly acceptable evolutionary adaptation to have a minority of tribal members behave this way.  All right brain functions remain intact, allowing these people to exert a certain amount of creativity and holistic thinking, just not as much as normal.

Informally, I have experimented with this idea by engaging skeptics in right brain style debate over parapsychology.  The method I use is to present psychic ability as a whole, rather than focusing on any individual issue.  The argument goes as follows:  Billions of people claim to have had experiences; millions of personal accounts are available;  thousands of positive scientific studies have been done; hundreds of scientific investigations have taken place; and on and on taken as a group as evidence.  Skeptics do not seem to be able to address the evidence in this fashion.  They always move back to specificity and detail, completely ignoring the bigger picture.  and if this proves to be a dead end, they simply move on to another small and specific area.

They generally lack the ability to evaluate as a whole what these forays into detail mean.  They can be proven wrong 19 times out of 20, and only see the 20th time when they were right.  It is not that specificity and detail aren’t important in examining an issue, they are, but only up to a point.  You cannot learn anything about a 50′ wave by investigating individual drops of water, yet this is essentially what skeptics do.  They are not making the proper associations or treating the subject holistically -tasks very much associated with the right brain.-

The ability to imagine the point of view of another and to see things clearly from this other perspective is absent from most skeptical discourse, whether written or verbal.  Arrogance and disdain replace true understanding.  This is yet another example of a lack of right brain processing.  When I have confronted skeptics on this point, they rarely deny it, but do tend to project, insisting that it is the “believers” who are truly unable to grasp other perspectives.

One point I’m making here is that the brain configuration of skeptics grants them certain advantages, but also has some very clear drawbacks.  No one is perfect; a right brained person has their own weaknesses, certainly.  A mind, for example, that makes too many associations is just as dystfunctional as one that does not make enough of them.  It is the left brain that makes sense of associations and creative thought.  People with right brain damage lose very important abilities, like language skills and the ability to order their thoughts and stay connected to reality.  It’s not like there is a better side of the brain.

Right brained people live in a world which very highly values left brained abilities.  The right brain is balanced. While left brained people can get away without developing their right brain, right brained people have no such luxury and are required to develop their left brain.  It makes right brained people, as a group, generally smarter than their left brained counterparts.  It’s a matter of necessity.

The other point I’m making is that the denial is built in to skeptics.  It is a byproduct of a specific variation built into our species designed to give these individuals specific advantages that are beneficial to their tribe.  It is of absolutely no use to argue with them or be upset with them for their views.  They are not going to change because they cannot change.

So what do we do about them?  Nothing.  It is a waste of time to interact with them.  Slavery and other denials of human rights are very left brain activities and have had their adherents.  It wasn’t the slavers and bigots who came around to understanding their flaws, but rather the rest of the world decided to put an end to their activities and condemn their opinions.  In the face of overwhelming opposition, they finally caved in.  We have a lot of people on our side and eventually, through education and information, we’ll overwhelm the skeptics.  What we won’t do is change their minds.

6 comments on “Skeptics and Left Brain Pitfalls

  1. psifiwireless
    February 14, 2013

    What a great post! Thanks Craig!

  2. Michael Duggan
    February 13, 2013

    Superb post and a neat explanation for skepticism in the face of powerful evidence for psi. I have noticed, however, a general trend towards accepting all manner of outlandish claims once the reality of psi is realised from certain educated folk. These include: HIV denialism, vaccines cause autism, creationism, 9-11 trutherism, moon landing conspiracies, and so on. It seems, in some people at least, that a highly functioning right hemisphere – at the expense of the more focussed analytical left hemisphere – leads to a lower threshold of skepticism towards genuinely daft ideas.

    • craigweiler
      February 13, 2013

      Hi Michael,
      I think it’s more complicated than that. I know for myself that it is. The search for scientific evidence for psi forced me to come to grips with the attitudes and belief systems of mainstream science. Once I understood that alternative ideas are actively suppressed, then I was willing to entertain them because I will follow actual science wherever it goes.

      In the case of HIV denialism, you made convincing arguments as to why to ignore it, so I believe you.

      The vaccine = autism issue though, which I never got involved in, is essentially a trust problem. It isn’t that people don’t trust science; it’s that they don’t trust the FDA to tell them the truth. This complicated and exacerbated that problem to an incredible degree because overall, the FDA is in the pocket of big drug companies and cannot be relied upon to protect our interests.

      Parents were faced with a terrible dilemma: the medical community, who they didn’t trust due to an obvious conflict of interest assured them that vaccines were fine, while other people, who had the same priorities as they did, were saying that the vaccines caused autism. To these people, it was a choice between vaccination against a possible disease or a possibility of autism in their child. They saw autism as the worse outcome.

      While it might seem to you that they were being hysterical and irresponsible, I tend to see it more as a byproduct of a corrupt system that has lost the public trust.

      As for the other issues, I’ve seen a bit of that, but not much. There is a fringe crowd on the right that overdoes it with associations, but in the main, most people are self correcting.

  3. Marcus T Anthony
    February 10, 2013

    Keep in mind that all brain mapping represents correlations to thought (or mind, which is my preferred term), and does not necessarily represent causality. That is a founding presupposition of much neuroscience, but it is merely an assumption. What comes first? The brain state or the thought/habitual thinking pattern?
    In my opinion it is the “mind” and worldview which lie behind the issue of extreme scepticism. As we grow into adulthood, the mind/personality establishes maps of reality, then becomes attached to those as its identity becomes rooted in them. When that map becomes threatened, the immediate response is fear, and that is followed by defence/attack. This effectively bypasses reason (even when the attacker identifies his position as “reason”), as whatever data or experience is presented to the mind, it will simply retreat to its position of safety – the known.

    This same process is true for all of us, regardless of worldview. As someone who has explored both very subtle and very deep emotional energies within the body, I know that this is true of me. It remains true to this day. This is why it is important to develop a practice of presence, and the ability to bring the mind into stillness. It is really only in this state that the mind is detached from experience and data, and can process it is a neutral way. When presence becomes deeply rooted within an individual, the mind is no longer the dominant aspect of self, and the attachment to worldview becomes much less. It still remains. It is just that a different relationship develops with the mind and its rigidity. This relaxation process occurs because one can see that everything the mind believes is ultimately an illusion. It’s just an approximation of the truth, and none of it perfectly aligned with truth (although some beliefs will get closer to the truth, and I’m not saying all belief is relative).

    Given this, if someone’s worldview is founded on a narrow view of reality – such as many religions and extreme scepticism and scientism, then the said individual will only permit a narrow range of data and experience to be entertained – and attack the rest as threats. In this sense you are right. It is pointless trying to argue or debate such extremism, as it is not based in rationality at all. Evidence, debate and especially direct experience become threats that have to be ridiculed and eliminated.

  4. Renata Daniel
    February 10, 2013

    wonderful post – I am sharing with all of my friends.

  5. pinkrangerv
    February 10, 2013

    YAY, a pseudo-skepticism post! I hate it when pseudo-skeptics call themselves ‘skeptics’; the term has an actual meaning and ‘I will deny any evidence’ is not it. I disagree with ignoring them, though. Saying, point blank, that they are being unscientific may not change their minds, but it does get the point across to the people watching the debate, and those are minds we *do* need to change.

    Also: Holy crap I can finally log in! *does happy dance*

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This entry was posted on February 10, 2013 by in Alternative Science, Skeptics and Skeptic Arguments.
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