Analysis: welcome to the wonderfully complex landscape and inner workings of our human brain

By Elina Makri, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

While there is much talk about fake news and misinformation as external "threats" for the individual, we rarely talk about the inner workings of the human brain, our ability to perceive the world and how this perception affects our decision making. The cognitive scientists of the Human Brain Project had few things to say about the unconscious and wonderfully complex landscape of decision making.

Is a lemon faster than a peach? "Most people say the lemon is faster, but it is unclear why this is the case", says Cyriel Pennartz, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam. "Unconscious bias towards associating something colourful with speed, which is pretty absurd but most people do this. So bias is already there on a perceptual level, very early in the brain.

"Another example is to associate sweet or sharp edges with sweet or salty. Most people associate sweet taste with round shapes and there are companies that make use of this, like Cadbury's which makes chocolates in round shapes so to have subjectively a sweeter taste. There is an unconscious bias on how people like something and they are not aware of that. Biases, as far as we know, are independent of education and culture. They are within us. As soon as we start imagining and perceiving things, we are already biased".

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From Big Think, Peter Baumann on how cognitive bias change people's perceptions

There are many cognitive biases since there are several brain systems that control our core cognition and behaviour. Biases make people create their own "subjective reality" and may not be reasonable or accurate. "Cognitive biases can help people to make faster decisions", says Rubén Moreno Bote from the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. "The bias is important for discovery and we know that non-human primates have that as well."

How biases affect our decisions

In an interview with German channel ZDF, former US president Barack Obama said that he came to realise that people voted "not so much based on policy, not even based on facts; they vote on stories. What's the story that makes sense to them and helps them explain their lives and their world? It's very hard to break, to change the narrative because people will block facts that contradict the story."

Moreno explains that everyone has an opinion on what it is to have a good or a safe world and that can have a cultural connotation. However, the fact that people have a unique view of the world really speaks about the inner workings of the brain. "I like to use the example of the Necker cube that you can perceive in two different ways: from above and from below. We only perceive it in one way so there is this perceptual bias that is super strong. You can not help it.

Necker cube: "We only perceive it in one way so there is this perceptual bias that is super strong". Photo: Getty Images

"Imagine this very simple stimulus as something you perceive with no doubt. You don't even realize that there is a different alternative. Imagine what can happen in more complex situations where we are dealing with politics, religion, pandemics. Consciously or subconsciously, humans try to build a story in order to make their observations complete or to explain them. This is a very basic drive. The story presents a complete overview of a situation and it will resist other facts if they are counterfactual. This is a remarkable trend to keep our worldviews unified and consistent.

"Why do we do that? It is a better basis to make firm actions and decisions. If we had to sustain two worldviews which might be contradictory, then we become very doubtful and we can not effectively act. Sometimes it's better to make a poor decision than no decision at all. It's a survival thing."

People are not irrational

Moreno believes that the very idea of irrational behaviour is not a good starting point for science. "Blaming the people that they cannot see the other side of the coin is not right because we see with the cube that this is the way our brain works. This is a very natural way for our brain to work: it picks up one interpretation of the world and sticks with that because it's beneficial. Then, the brain also has the machinery to flip, with enough time and information to the other direction.

"We make the mistake of presenting people as stupid and this is also the fault of scientists. When decision making as a field was first developed by mathematicians, they assumed naively that humans have essentially infinite resources to compute, to decide, to think".

Dogmatism in the brain

For Roshan Cools, Professor of Cognitive neuropsychiatry at Radboud University, dogmatism is the consequence of the increase of uncertainty around us. "Dogmatism is certainly correlated with the bias in the brain. What I am studying is this idea that a bias towards stability is associated with dopamine release in one brain system and flexibility is associated with dopamine increases in a different brain system.

"If you have a lot of dopamine in the striatum, then you are super distractible but also very flexible. If you have a lot of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, then you are actually quite rigid and maybe dogmatic. These cognitive and psychological constructs have fascinated philosophers for centuries but they also can be decoded from the brain at the cellular and circuit level."

The idea that certain human and personality traits such as dogmatism, melancholy, aggressive behavior and others are rooted in the complex landscape of the brain is a hot topic. In view of the advances in psychology and neuroscience, our societies may realise that social categories used by institutions to hold individuals accountable may prove to be inconsistent with neurobiology.

Elina Makri is an Early Stage Researcher at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a PhD researcher at JOLT, the EU Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie European Training Network.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ