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Why our brains lie to us

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Brain lobes (Credit: Allan Ajifo via Flickr)

In an article titled “Your Brain is Primed to Reach False Conclusions,” Christie Aschwanden discusses the way that cognitive bias makes it so easy for our brains to incorrectly link one event as the cause of something else. The piece cites the way that many have erroneously linked vaccines with autism and seizures as an example of this mistaken correlation. This error is often called the “illusion of causality” and a recent study in the British Journal of Psychology has found that these illusions “don’t just cement erroneous ideas in the mind; they can also prevent new information from correcting them.” Aschwanden goes on to describe how research has shown that simply giving people new information that contradicts those illusions doesn’t do much, if anything, to solve the problem.

In fact, the only tactic that has shown much promise in helping people to correct such mistakes is education. When people were taught about the illusion of causality and how to recognize it, they were more likely to avoid it in the future. That said, as Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan notes, “people don’t apply their critical-thinking skills in the same way when they have a preference for who’s right.” Essentially, people aren’t likely to be objective when it comes to things they care about.

Aschwanden concludes the article by asking “So where does this leave us? With a lot of evidence that erroneous beliefs aren’t easily overturned, and when they’re tinged with emotion, forget about it…If you want someone to accept information that contradicts what they already know, you have to find a story they can buy into. That requires bridging the narrative they’ve already constructed to a new one that is both true and allows them to remain the kind of person they believe themselves to be.”

While Aschwanden wasn’t necessarily talking about religion, her conclusions couldn’t be more relevant for us today. Religion is, for many people, a very emotional issue and one that is often difficult to discuss objectively. If we can’t find a way to “bridge the narrative” from where people are in their beliefs about God, or even a particular moral/theological issue, to the truth of scripture then we aren’t likely to see much change. And while we have the added benefit of the Holy Spirit’s work on their lives to help them with that journey, our efforts would still be greatly improved if we spent less time guessing at what will be effective and more time trying to understand where they are spiritually and how to bridge that gap.  

Moreover, we need to remember that many of the people that most need to hear the truth of scripture will view your faith in the same way you view their lack of faith: namely as the kind of “illusion” that needs to be corrected. Understanding this truth and the impact it has on their ability to give real consideration to the truth of the Christian faith is essential to having a reasoned and respectful dialogue on the subject.

It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that atheism, agnosticism, or unbiblical views are things people choose to believe. While that may have been the case originally, over time people’s hearts and minds become hardened to the truth of scripture and it really does become more of an inability to understand than an unwillingness to understand. Once we recognize that difference, it is easier to be patient and sympathetic with those who are having difficulty with the Christian message. That is why it is so crucial that we find a way to “bridge the narrative” as Aschwanden describes in this article.

Paul’s approach in 1 Corinthians 9 gives us an example of how we might do that. He says that “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). The context of that statement is Paul talking about how, in conversations with those who are struggling to understand or live out a correct faith, he is willing to adapt his approach to whatever is going to be most effective. That doesn’t mean compromising biblical truth or changing the gospel but it does mean being open to having the conversation on the other person’s terms rather than your own. It means meeting them where they are most comfortable and presenting God’s truth in a way that allows them to “bridge the narrative” between where they are and where the Lord wants them to be.

So where does God want you to start building bridges today? Pray and ask the Lord to guide you in your conversations with others. Then, as he leads, speak with the kind of courage tempered by understanding that Paul describes in the passage above. Never doubt that God can use such conversations to accomplish truly amazing things for his kingdom. So where will you begin today?

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