Earlier today George Hansen sent me an email with a link to an essay by Thomas Sheridan, arguing that militant skepticism can be explained in terms of a certain kind of neurology. The essay's title, "Obsessive Debunking Disorder (ODD)?", conveys its humorous but rather combative tone.
At first I wasn't going to post anything about it, since I'm going for a more positive and less critical approach on this blog. However, I found Sheridan's hypothesis so interesting - and so relevant to my own experience as a skeptic in my younger days - that I decided I had to cover it.
Sheridan makes it clear that he's not talking about moderate skeptics who are at least somewhat open to debate. Rather, his focus is on:
The self-appointed guardians and vanguards of materialist dogma ... The debunker, the hardcore skeptic—how they love to compulsively ridicule and mock all they deem 'pseudoscience' and 'conspiracy theory'—while also declaring anyone who thinks outside the box or questions the prevailing orthodoxy, a "moron" and a "tard". Matters not how solid the evidence you present them with is, nor how flimsy their own state-sanctioned 'hard science' which they smugly offer up as their rebuttal; they are driven by a messianic compulsion to root out unscientific 'idiots' ...
From here he segues into a discussion of the two hemispheres of the brain. He points out that the simplistic "logical left" and "intuitive right" model popularized in earlier decades has been largely discredited.
... in recent years, imaging research has shown that both hemispheres share more or less the same attributes, and both can equally process the same cognitive functionality. However, and this is crucial, there is a level of redundancy in both hemispheres.
The growing speculation for the need for two (asymmetrical) brain hemispheres is to perform two acts of awareness. The left brain is devoted to specific tasks and objectives, while the right brain acts as a kind of peripheral awareness. There has to be a kind of background seeing, as well as immediate attention to the task at hand. Think of an early human on the side of a riverbank trying to spear a salmon—the left brain would be devoted to this task. In order to maintain awareness of the environment and possible dangers therein, the right hemisphere of the human brain is 'looking' out for predators such as a saber-tooth tiger seeking an easy meal ...
According to Sheridan, the bundle of nerve fibers that joins the two hemispheres - the corpus callosum - is now seen less as a bridge between the two than as a means of inhibiting one hemisphere. The corpus callosum, he writes,
acts more like a buffer, with the left brain in Western people having a desire to literally switch off the neural activity in the right hemisphere.... [T]he left hemisphere is a bully. In overly logical and analytical individuals, fMRI scans have shown the left brain actually inhibits the right brain—via the corpus callosum nerve fibers—from offering its contribution to the entire cognitive process. This state of right hemisphere nullification is where the debunker and the hardcore skeptics are trapped and can never leave—in their intolerant and highly narcissistic left hemisphere—using the two percent of neural wiring into their right hemisphere in order to shut it off. ... their intuition and 'background awareness' are likewise diminished.
The abstract of a technical article on the corpus callosum somewhat reinforces this point, though in cautious language:
Both the excitatory as well as the inhibitory theory seem likely candidates to describe callosal function, although evidence from recent studies favour the inhibitory model. However the corpus callosum is a complex structure consisting of distinct components which could allow for the possibility to have both an excitatory or inhibitory function that can alter according to task demands.
Sheridan observes that better educated people are actually easier to hypnotize than the less educated, and suggests that people who have concentrated on developing their intellectual (left-brain) faculties may end up in a state resembling permanent self-hypnosis, mesmerized by their own inner chatter, lacking common sense and intuitive skills. "The over-dependence upon and submission to the left hemisphere of the brain leads to just as much delusion and risk of being deceived as the flighty and poetic over-stimulated right hemisphere," Sheridan notes.
I have to say that I've noticed this phenomenon quite often. Highly educated people - say, Ph.D.s - can be remarkably blind to what seem like very obvious facts. Not infrequently they seem trapped in a world of purely mental constructs, a world that bears little relation to observable reality.
The left brain, Sheridan says, is not only "a bully" but
highly narcissistic and with an inflated sense of its own worth and status. The left hemisphere sees no problem with itself, and this has been shown in stroke patients who lost the use of the right hemisphere of their brain. Operating in left-brain mode only, they assumed they were perfectly fine until they attempted to get out of bed only to discover they were paralysed on one side.
The individual whose left brain is thoroughly dominant, inhibiting any input from the right hemisphere, is thus doubly disadvantaged. Not only is he using only half of his brain, but the half he's using is prone to self-delusion, grandiosity, and arrogant self-righteousness, while often having limited social skills.
The result, says Sheridan, is
a kind of self-induced schizophrenia, resulting from over-hyperactivity in the left hemisphere of the brain. There is too much information being processed, and the intense devotion to the analytical leads to a kind of overload in the 'here and now' dominant cognitive rationalisation based on statistical data, while neglecting the right hemisphere of the brain and the 'background awareness'.
Remember that schizophrenia doesn't mean dual personality, but chronically disordered thinking characterized by bizarre fixations. He goes on:
The bullying aspect of their narcissistic left brain creates a superiority complex, in that they come to believe they know all and see all, when in reality, they are running half-empty with one aspect of their human experience essentially missing. This part of the human experience where intuition, hunches, insight and social intelligence of the most subtle and intricate forms are a complete mystery to them....
They simply cannot relate to the rest of us. We are 'irrational', 'lacking reason', 'lost in woo'. Their experience of being human and how they describe it through crude metaphors whereby 'we are just DNA robots' and there is nothing else going on—is not how the rest of us experience our lives. We know there is much more to the human experience than these left-brained internees of the hardcore skeptic and debunker faction assume.
This, to me, is an especially telling point. I have long marveled at the ability of intelligent people to embrace the idea that they are essentially sacks of viscera programmed by DNA - "meat puppets" lacking free will, personal identity, or even consciousness. This strikes me as so self-evidently wrong-headed that I've been at a loss to see how anyone could take it seriously.
In Sheridan's view, they take it seriously because the intuitive part of them, the part that would keep them in touch with the nuances and subtleties of the larger world, has been shut off. They are left at the mercy of the left brain, which repeats the same verbal formulas over and over until these formulas harden into dogmas, creating a kind of self-imposed hypnotic trance in which nonsensical ideas seem inescapably true.
As I said earlier, this outlook sheds some light on my own experience as a skeptic. Though I was never quite a member of the "meat puppet" school, I was reflexively hostile to anything that smacked of religion, spirituality, the paranormal, or the "irrational." This covered a lot of ground and left me feeling somewhat alienated and lost. I compensated for this lost feeling by inflating my own ego with excessive certainty, unrealistically grandiose ambitions, and contempt for the vast majority of people who didn't see things my way. I acted as if I "knew it all," when in fact I was quite ignorant and was mainly repeating verbal formulas that assumed the quality of dogma in my mind.
My shift away from skepticism was brought about, in large part, because of an experience I had when I was 36. I had been struggling to come up with an idea for a novel, without success, and had become enraged and despondent about it. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an entire plot came to me just as fast as I could type it out. I felt as if if the whole synopsis - characters, plot twists, setting, theme - was being dictated to me. It was an uncanny experience, and it opened up a new world for me - the world of the right brain, the unconscious, intuition, etc. My study of these things led me to take a close look at spirituality and other "irrational" subjects for the first time.
Interpreting this episode in terms of Sheridan's essay, I would say that I spent my 20s and the first half of my 30s in a self-hypnotized, narcissistic, left-brain daze, cut off from much of the richness and complexity of the world. I had actively inhibited the right hemisphere, blocking its input. When I inadvertently relaxed my guard, this input surged into my awareness, giving me a complete novel outline in a matter of minutes. After that, I was no longer able to ignore this long-denied part of myself.
It's an intriguing viewpoint, and I think it has much to recommend it. It may help to explain the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the more militant skeptics and those of us on the "woo" side.
Read the whole essay here.