The Neuropsychology of Dogmatic Beliefs and Delusions

Novelists and historians have amply documented how humans become entangled in dogmas and delusions. Recent events have brought them to the front pages of our daily paper. While humanists decry such dogmas, we often struggle in vain trying to combat delusions in others by reasoned argument. Furthermore, we are often blind to our own dogmatic beliefs.

This talk will discuss what evidence we have so far from neuroscience and social psychology about how people from dogmas and delusions. As with many aspects of our current human condition, the roots lie in our recent evolutionary adaptations for small group living scaled up hastily to large complex societies. Belief has become a rapid indicator of commitment to the group. Therefore, as many astute critics have noted, delusions are not really like honest mistakes in perception or reasoning, which can be corrected by evidence; shared delusions hold important social meaning for the group. Even personal memories can be substantially altered by social commitments. Furthermore, there is a substantial grey area between obstinate idiosyncratic beliefs and the kinds of florid delusions seen in psychosis.

If we humanists are to reach people who disagree with us and raise the level of public discourse at this time of crisis, we need to understand why so many people are so resistant to evidence and also make allowances for how all of us interpret ambiguous evidence through the lens of our social commitments.

Mark Reimers is an associate professor in the neuroscience program at Michigan State University where he integrates statistical analysis with neuroscience theory in order to interpret the very large data sets now being generated in neuroscience, especially from the technologies developed by the BRAIN initiative. He graduated from the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia and previously held appointments at the National Institutes of Health, Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and Virginia Commonwealth University.