The Ruts of Our Brain

We are not – by nature – open minded. In fact, as we learn something, the learning creates neural pathways in our brain that we tend to stick to. In other words, the more we learn, the bigger the ruts get.

Our brains are this way by design. At its core, the brain is an energy saving device. If there are two options open to it, one requiring more cognitive processing and one requiring less, the brain will default to the less resource intensive option.

This puts expertise into an interesting new perspective. In a recent study, researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Columbia University, University College London and Flatiron Institute found that when mice learn a new task, the neurons in their brain actually change as they move from being a novice to an expert. At the beginning as they’re learning the task, the required neurons don’t “fire” until the brain makes a decision. But, as expertise is gained, those same neurons start responding before they’re even needed. It’s essentially Hebbian Theory (named after neurologist Donald Hebbs) in action: the neurons that fire together eventually wire together.

We tend to think of experts as bringing a well-honed subset of intellectual knowledge to a question. And that is true, as long as the question is well within their area of expertise. But the minute an expert ventures outside of their “rut” they begin to flounder. In fact, even when they are in their area of expertise but are asked to predict where that path that may lead in the future – beyond their current rut – their expertise doesn’t help them. In 2005 psychologist Phillip Tetlock published “Expert Political Judgement” – a book showing the results of a 20-year long study on the prediction track record of experts. It wasn’t good. According to a New Yorker review of the book, “Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world…are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys”

Why? Well, just like those mice in the above-mentioned study, once we have a rut, our brains like to stick to the rut. It’s just easier for us. And experts have very deep ruts. The deeper the rut, the more effort it takes to peer above it. As Tetlock found, when it comes to predicting what might happen in some area in the future, even if you happen to be an expert in that area, you’d probably be better off flipping a coin than relying on your brain.

By the way, for most of human history, this has been a feature, not a bug. Saving cognitive energy is a wonderful evolutionary advantage. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, eventually the brain pre-lights the neuronal path required, saving itself time and energy. The brain is directing anticipated traffic at faster than the speed of thought. And it’s doing it so well, it would take a significant amount of cognitive horsepower to derail this action.

Like I said, in a fairly predictably world of cause and effect, this system works. But in an uncertain world full of wild card complexity, it can be crippling.

Complex worlds require Foxes, not Hedgehogs. This analogy also comes from Tetlock’s book. According to an old Greek fable, “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows just one thing.” To that I would add; the fox knows a little about many things, but the hedgehog knows a lot about one thing. In other words, the hedgehog is an expert.

In Tetlock’s study, people with “fox” qualities had a significantly better track record then “hedgehogs” when it came to predicting the future. Their brains were better able to take the time to synthesize the various data inputs required to deal with the complexity of crystal balling the future because they weren’t barrelling down a pre-ordained path that had been carved by years of accumulated expertise.

But it’s not just expertise that creates these ruts in our brains. The same pattern plays out when we look at the impact of our beliefs play in how open-minded we are. The stronger the belief, the deeper the rut.

Again, we have to remember that this tendency of our brains to form well-travelled grooves over time has been crafted by the blind watchmaker of evolution. But that doesn’t make it any less troubling when we think about the limitations it imposes in a more complex world. This is especially true when new technologies deliberately leverage our vulnerability in this area. Digital platforms ruthlessly eliminate the real estate that lies between perspectives. The ideological landscape in which foxes can effectively operate is disappearing. Increasingly we grasp for expertise – whether it’s on the right or left of any particular topic – with the goal of preserving our own mental ruts.

And as the ruts get deeper, foxes are becoming an endangered species.

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