The Neuroscience of How Personal Attacks Shut Down Critical Thinking

The Neuroscience of How Personal Attacks Shut Down Critical Thinking April 7, 2013

Psychologist Nicole Currivan is the organizer of the Pittsburgh Freethinkers. She spoke at the 2012 Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist Conference (keep apprised on the details about the upcoming September 2013 conference as they become available here. While at the American Atheists convention a week ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a long chat with the co-creator of this conference, Brian Fields, and he is an impressive activist.)

Currivan’s talk below is about how to get people to listen to you when you’re a member of a stigmatized group. The neuroscience she relates (which I transcribed below) and the numerous tips she gives at the video’s end (some of which I have briefly summarized), in numerous ways support the principles of my civility pledge and my advice for preempting and countering people’s tendencies to feel personally attacked when they are being merely intellectually confronted.

From 11:50-16:27, she explains with neuroscience how putting people on the defensive on a personal level shuts down their their critical thinking skills.

First we need to know a bit about two regions of the brain that are fairly at odds with one another.

The prefontal cortex, which…is in the front of the brain if you’re facing forward. And the limbic system, which… is a huge chunk of many regions in the center of the brain. The pre-fontal cortex is our executive function. It helps us plan and decide what actions best meet our needs and is responsible for social inhibition, personality, and processing new information. It’s the part that says “you could have garlic bread tonight but you also don’t want to sit alone in the corner”.

The limbic system…is responsible for emotions and formation of memory. It reminds you that you love garlic bread and you were really embarrassed, too, the last time you ate it and no one sat next to you. So the important point about these two areas is: activation of one region generally results in deactivation or inhibition of the other, so they have an inverse relationship. This is because in situations of low or moderate stress, the prefontal cortex inhibits the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for emotions that relate to the four 4’s: fight, flight, feeding–and mating…

So it makes us feel things like fear, reward, and anger that normally the prefrontal cortex can respond to with a spot of reason and inhibition. In a normal, low stress situation, you want the garlic bread or the cookie, for example, but you can decide whether or not to eat it because your prefrontal cortex is still engaged. And as your stress level may increase it gets harder to make those choices. Your rational thought capacity is there less and less and less to police your emotions when stress increases.

And this is where things can get ugly. If something extremely stressful happens that lights up the amygdala, it has the power to shut down the prefrontal cortex completely. It has this fight or flight or freeze response…and it’s instantaneous. It’s something that evolved for situations in which there is no time for decision making. You can’t think about whether you want garlic bread, you have to drop it and run when you’re confronted with a tiger. And that’s incidentally why people don’t eat when they are stressed, and a lot of other things that happen to our body as part of the stress response.

So there are times, high stress times, when executive decision making processes go completely down to the count and our emotions take over. By threatening somebody, whether it’s real or perceived, you can completely disable people’s their ability to think straight. And this isn’t all or nothing, it’s on a continuum. A threat can be anything that causes stress from the tiger to just an uncomfortable thought. The level of stress will influence the amount of rational thought vs. emotion that’s available and it’s totally subjective to the perceived experience of stress.

And, adding to that, increased stress and emotion can influence memory. More emotion leads to stronger memories. And those memories last longer, especially if it’s a negative emotion. We all remember where we were the morning of 9/11. Last Tuesday? Not so much. And it makes sense that our brains do this since emotions fear and anger are about events we really want to be prepared for in case they happen again. At this point you’ve probably figured out that if your goal is to get someone to process new information and think critically about stereotypes (like [that] atheists are criminals or they should die) the absolute last thing we want is for them to feel threatened or attacked. The worst part about this is if you combine the process I just described with the sorts of negative emotional responses triggered by stereotypes and other biases, you can see that someone, if they’re all stressed by their perception of you…you’ve lost them, they’re not going to be able to listen. And you’ve additionally probably just given them a fun bad new memory to hang onto.

From 17:03-19:07:

First, as fun as some of you may think it is to attack and argue and ridicule people, just be aware that that will legitimately slam the door to rational understanding–of any point you have. And if you can’t call the discussion you’re having calm and rational, you are in serious danger of indulging your own emotional satisfaction to the point where you’re reinforcing someone’s distrust in all of us. And starting with the premise that someone needs to change or the inherent assumption that “I know more than you” will definitely create a strong stress response and pushback as well. Something we all inherently know but we do it anyway.

Second, if you want to reduce stigma, it’s essential to reduce limbic system activation as much as possible whenever you’re talking to somebody. Any kind of threat, real or perceived, in the current moment or even just something they remember, something bad that they remember about the stigma that’s on the person they’re talking with, can shut down their ability to take in new information. And shuts down possibility for change. So fear is really the enemy of trust in this case and it’s mistrust that the studies have found people have for atheists.

Third, if you want to change people’s opinion of you, making the conversation rewarding for them will definitely increase the likelihood that will happen. The less stressed they are, the more their brain will receive and process new information.

Fourth, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface here with applicable brain science, but consider that emotions are highly contagious. And, unfortunately, negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones. So your stress will definitely spread throughout a room. And it also doesn’t work to hide your stress from people because it actually makes their blood pressure go up if you try. So don’t try to change people’s thinking about you if you’re stressed or in a bad mood, just wait until you can be calm and pleasant so it can be rewarding for everybody.

Finally, she gives a lot of really good and helpful constructive advice about skills to work on starting around the 20 minute mark. While all of it is really good, I especially like and can vouch for the advice to let the other person talk. Let them think, let them express themselves. Actively show you understand them. People care about being heard and like people who listen to them. It’s a great way to open them up to be responsive when you finally give them something to think about. It’s also a great way to find out what they care about so you can address their actual concerns.

She also points out that we need to be patient and accept that it will take multiple, interpersonally non-judgmental, conversations. We need to consider just having rational discussions a victory in itself. We also need to practice to reframe our confrontations in our minds so that we see them in constructive and realistic terms that allow us to avoid getting emotional ourselves. We need to know our personal triggers to avoid getting stressed out and losing it. We need to find points of common ground. Tell people your own story. Phrase things in terms of yourself and how you think and feel rather than with accusatory “you” language. Reward people for understanding, for showing they’re listening, for having a good conversation. She recommends making an overall good impression on someone before getting around to mentioning that you’re an atheist. She also recommends doing one of the most controversial things I put into my civility pledge–which is apologizing even when you’ve done nothing wrong as a way of calming people. 

Your Thoughts?

Much more from Camels With Hammers on the importance of civility:

The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge

A Study Provides Evidence That Incivility Closes Minds

Research Suggests Verbal Abuse Hinders Brain Development

“But People Aren’t Logical Robots, We Need To Shock Them, and They’ll Call Us Uncivil Even If We Are Civil”

What Kind of a Rationalist Wants to Verbally Abuse People into Submission Like an Authoritarian?

I am not against “dirty words”. I am against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them.

Do Marginalized People Need To Be Insulting To Be Empowered

Avoiding The Abuser’s Dialectic (Or “My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Indignation”)

My Philosophy on What the Best Freethinking and Free Speech Entail

We Need Both Safe Spaces AND Philosophically Open Ones

Debate is Not Pointless


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