The science of changing your mind — and someone else's

Can neurology tell us how to deprogram our radicalized loved ones?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 21, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Two minds concept (iStock/Getty Images)
Two minds concept (iStock/Getty Images)

Yelling at them doesn't work. Appealing to their empathy doesn't work. Rebutting their disinformation and conspiracy theories not only doesn't work, it actually just makes them dig in their heels more deeply. So rather than continuing to bang our heads against the wall, or simply throwing up our hands in despairing futility of talking to our radicalized relatives and neighbors, is there anything that does work to change anybody else's mind? Can we even, for that matter, change our own?

It's not your imagination — we are living through an astonishingly polarized moment in history. A Pew Research report last fall painted a bleak portrait of "the increasingly stark disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the economy, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement, international engagement and a long list of other issues." I've been spending my summer so far doing coursework in conflict resolution, and it's taught me the value of empathic listening — and the simple truth that you can't negotiate with anybody who won't sit at the table.

To understand how we can become less contentious (or if we even can), we have to recognize how we got to this place. No huge surprise here — as Robert Kozinets wrote for Salon back in 2017, social media has played an oversized role in rewiring our unruly, addiction-prone brains. "One of the most effective ways to achieve mass appeal," he observed, "turned out to be by turning to the extreme." 

Who cares if it's even true? As "The Hype Machine" author Sinan Aral explains of his research, "Novelty attracts human attention because it is surprising and emotionally arousing.... False news was indeed more novel than the truth, and people were more likely to share novel information." The more extreme, the more arousing the information is, the brighter it lights up our brains.

That rush that social media provides also, unfortunately, creates what Facebook cofounder Sean Parker ruefully has called "a social-validation feedback loop ... exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology." We gravitate to the heady cocktail of reward and anxiety that our notifications provide, in that endless, agitating loop. But it's not just social media that's a problem: it's media media, as the multitudes of us who have "lost" family members to Fox News know.

Our minds are more vulnerable and our thoughts more untrustworthy when we're scared. And while the far right takes the gold medal for anxiety-stoking — there's scientific evidence that conservatives have a "greater gray matter volume in the amygdala"— we on the progressive side of the aisle are no strangers to fearmongering either, as my 3 AM doomscrolling can confirm. The trap here is that our brains are not super reliable about distinguishing perceived threats from actual and immediate ones, especially at 3 AM.

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Dr. James Giordano, Professor of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, explains that we all have our own individual "peak performance" stress range. 

"As stress levels get higher, we begin to fatigue not only biologically, but psychologically and socially, and we perceive the stress and perhaps the stressor as threatening," Giordano says. "The more vulnerable we feel, often, the more volatile we become. That volatility can be a prompt to aggressiveness and violence."

And it doesn't necessarily matter if the stressor is legitimate. "Perceived stress," he says, "is very important. A perceived threat can instill a sense of dread in an individual or group of individuals, and be very influential in guiding their thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Hence," he continues, "the effectiveness of propaganda in advancing ideas whereby a defined other, often also portrayed as 'inhuman,' is intrinsically threatening."

Dehumanization is a highly effective empathy killer. And while I'm not engaging in false equivalences by any stretch here, I can certainly cop to my own fears of the faceless enemies of my ideologies, and how far stuck they are in my own brain.

So before I can even hope to change anyone else's mind, I have to try to understand my own. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist and author of "Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life," says, "Inside of our brain we have four distinctive characters. The better we get to know those four different characters, our two emotional and our two thinking, we can identify when we're being which, and then we can recognize that in other people."

She continues: "When we dig our heels into something that we are emphatic and passionate about, we are using our limbic system, our emotional system. The left hemisphere emotion is looking for our differences and it is bucking against our differences. This is our fear and our anxiety. The emotion in our right brain is connected to humanity, and is looking for how to collaborate and focus on our similarities. If we're recognizing someone else is in their emphatic, emotional,  'I need to be right, you're wrong'  mind, I don't have to react with my comparable character. I can observe. I don't have to engage."

But if for some compelling reason I actually do want to engage, pediatric neuropsychologist and parent coach Dr. Sarah Levin Allen has some ideas. "Our brains compartmentalize and group 'like' information together to be more efficient," she says. "Then, we learn by connecting new information with what we already know. In order to change people's minds, you literally have to find what people already know and slowly connect the dots (or neurons — the cells in the brain) to the new information."

The challenge, as she acknowledges, is finding ways around the intense pressure and high reactivity many of us are facing, and looking for the right openings to approach.

"Most of the time, people whose brains aren't stressed with other things (like processing work or emotions) can find the thing that is 'like' the new information and begin to make the pathways themselves," she says, "thus creating a change of mind. When the new idea is too much of a deviation from what someone knows or when stress reactions block the ability to make pathways, brains need help. When trying to change the mind of someone who is stressed, we actually need to do one of two things: either reduce the stress hormone in the brain by making a connection and reducing negative emotion first or slow down the process delivering ideas in very short bursts that the brain can slowly process."

In other words, you don't have to love your enemies, but you're definitely not going to win them over to your ideas without first getting them to chill out.

Of course, belief and behavior are two separate entities. Your sister-in-law may believe that face masks cause demonic possession; she might still choose to wear one if she wants to go to Applebee's. A Florida man may believe he won a re-election, he still has to hand over the nuclear football. Ultimately, life affords us plenty of opportunities to settle for grudging acceptance, if not grateful conversion. (See: Everything you've ever browbeaten your children into doing.) 

But in many spaces, we don't have to compromise; we don't have to find common ground. We can choose information — and disinformation — that affirms and exacerbates our deepest anxieties. We can stoke the fires of our amygdalas and never run out of fuel; that's totally an option. We can refuse to engage with those too far gone to reason with; that's often a healthy choice. 

The harder work, if we want to take a swing at getting those who still have ears to hear us to listen and neurons to engage, is to consider Allen's advice. "Meet people where they are," she says, "and bring them to where you want them to be."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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