Monday, March 9, 2009

Dissonance Induction Devices

I often think of rhetorical tricks as dissonance induction devices. By definition, when we atheists talk to religious people, we're dealing with people who have been immunized to reason. By playing "fair" by our own rules, we get nowhere. There will be time to encourage the development of critical thinking. First you have to get through the defenses. (Ex-evangelicals, feel free to join in with whether you think this is effective.)

Though the anti-materialists of the world would of course disagree, there is - must be - a physical basis to thought. It's expected that concepts are coded in physical structures in the brain - that is, somewhere in your brain, there's literally a bunch of cells for Lake Michigan. If you've swum in it or at least seen it from the air, it's a bigger bunch than if you've just heard the name in school.

Someone in New Guinea who's never heard of Lake Michigan will not have such a cluster, but there are general regions that all clinically normal humans share. While we don't share experience-derived structures, we do share these general regions that are responsible for certain processes. Often it's most intriguing to see differences in how these general processes operate in different people, especially if there are significant operational differences between certain demographic categories. Hence it was with great interest that I read this finding about the function of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in religious versus non-religious people. One of the ACC's known functions is error detection. It turns out that in religious people, it's measurably less active. When they say "Ya can't blink", they mean it. They don't.

The problem is that you can be certain and be wrong, especially if the error-detection part of your brain has been put on mute. This finding, while valuable comfirmation of something we suspect, is of course unsurprising. If you're subject to self-examination, you can't believe in talking snakes. But, despite the best efforts of the Discovery Institute and their buddies, we're learning more about what different parts of the brain do, and that there are subsystems that come online for different function. In The End of Faith Sam Harris describes an encounter with unpleasant gentlemen trying to pull a woman into their car on a dark street in Prague. Thinking quickly, he approached them and instead of suicidally demanding "Let the lady go!" he started asking directions of the in deliberately convoluted English. This confused them long enough while their translation subsystems kicked in that she got away.

What's the general idea? Deliberately inducing cognitive dissonance by setting up a struggle between subsystems. Try it yourself and take a Stroop test. I watch Harris for these kinds of tricks because he is getting (or may have already finished) a PhD in neuroscience, and has proved adept at getting ideas under the door with tricks like this: in the clip I linked to, he's eroding the ACC-associated certainty in Scripture by activating the us-versus-them social circuitry in the limbic system. It's the same idea as in Star Trek episodes when the ship's computer becomes evil, and they tell it to compute pi to the last digit.

I refer to these tricks as dissonance induction devices: a fancy term for ways to make 'em blink long enough to get something under the door, for them to mull over later in the day. I don't pretend to have a bag of tricks saved up about how to do this or I would share them here, though I would point you to the always amazing Derren Brown to see what's possible.

I'm trying to turn my interest in neuroscience to rhetorical purposes, and I invite you to join me. I'll say that I don't expect thinking up rhetorical strategies based on neurological first principles to end up yielding many (or any) insights. George Lakoff's Don't Think of An Elephant is an interesting book but essentially recapitulates in academic terms, for logos-based-thinkers, what salespeople have known since the bronze age (frame your argument in images and values near and dear to the target audience). Humans are pretty good readers and engineers of each other's intentions, and we've been arguing for thousands of years, so I'm sure most tricks discovered with this strategy will have already been familiar to Cicero.

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