By Edward Snow
Astrologers who would change the way scientific adversaries perceive and process astrology face an uphill slog, an essay by social anthropologist, researcher and writer Marilyn Schlitz, PhD, implies.
Dr. Schlitz is President Emeritus and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, where she has served as President and CEO. She also is a Senior Scientist at the California Pacific Medical Center and has been a leader in the field of consciousness studies for more than three decades.
Her essay, titled Why We Can Be Dogmatically Against Things We Know Nothing About, appears in the latest edition of The Write Stuff: Thinking Through Essays. In it she raises a number of questions, such as how can we develop habits that allow us to explore our own biases? And how can we learn to recognize our own intolerance of ideas that refute our prevailing beliefs and opinions?
“These are tricky questions, but new discoveries in neuroscience, social psychology and anthropology offer provocative insights into the barriers of transformation. They show us that our views of reality are embedded largely in our unconscious mind. Operating below the threshold of conscious awareness, our beliefs and assumptions shape our experience,” she said.
Here’s the bad news for astrologers hoping to see a thaw in their relationships with skeptical scientists: a study by researchers Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang from Dartmouth College demonstrates that a resistance to new information “may actually be hardwired into our brains. When confronted with dissonant data – that which contradicts what we expect to see – even trained scientists appear to reject contradictory information that goes against their assumptions about how the world works,” Dr. Schlitz says.
“Using the sophisticated brain mapping tools of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the Dartmouth scientists discovered that the brain triggers activity in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), the section largely associated with the perception of contradictions and errors. This process is important for editing out false information but can also inhibit the ability to retain correction information that goes against prevailing scientific assumptions.
“At the same time, another portion of the brain, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), suppresses unwanted information that doesn’t jibe with the scientists’ preexisting theories. When triggered, this area of the brain can actually cause individuals to delete the contradictory information from their awareness,” she points out.
Dr. Schlitz believes this can be a serious problem for scientists charged with the discovery of new – or seemingly discredited – knowledge about life. And it’s also a problem for everyone else who is seeking to expand their horizons or maintain and open mind on any of the subjects about which people have been known to hold unyielding opinions.
“These experiments reveal a truth about human nature: belief binds us to alternative points of view and can even lead to dogmatic assertions about things we know nothing about,” she says.
When or whether these insights will ever inform astrology’s implacable critics remains to be seen. For that matter, to get where we’d most like to be may require softening some of the hard spots in our own rhetorical themes. As Dr. Schlitz puts it: “The data calls for the humility to question our deepest assumptions.”
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