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Why do people dying from Covid refuse to believe they have it?

Why do people dying from Covid refuse to believe they have it? Why do people focus on the low percentage risk of dying, yet minimize that over 900,000 people in just the US have died from Covid? Why do some persist in their believe it’s only a minor cold, like the flu? Why is it people think getting Covid is less risky than a vaccine?

In Master and His Emissary, Ian MacGilchrest makes the case that at different times in man’s history, there have been differing predominance of what he calls right sided and left sided thinking. As you may recall, the right sided brain sees the world as a free flowing movie, taking in all it can. The left sided brain focuses in on a particular concern, parses the movie into individual frames and reconstructs the movie to fit its desired outcome.

Both are necessary components, but at different times, people have focused on one more than the other. He makes the case that since the time of the Industrial Revolution, we have tended to a more left sided view of the world, one in which we can more and more manipulate our environment to better succeed. Certainly we have benefitted from all the technological advances from the steam engine to the cotton gin to cleaner water and air to the computer and beyond. But we have also suffered- increased war time killing capacity, genocides, pollution,- you get the picture.

In Free the Brain, I used the more up to date terminology of the Hidden Brain and the Aware Brain since we now know it’s not anatomic - one side or the other-, but rather about functional areas. It would be tempting to think of MacGIlchrist’s right brain as the Hidden Brain and left brain as the Aware Brain, but it’s not quite so clearly consistent. What is consistent, I think, is his perspective that through time there has been a predominance of one over the other in the way people view the world, and in his view about this since the 1700’s and Enlightenment. And I believe we are seeing the logical extension of the shift toward his left minded dominance in the way some people are viewing the pandemic.

Recall in Free the Brain, one’s best choices result from an interplay between the Hidden Brain and the Aware Brain, a feedback loop where the deliberative, analytical Aware Brain informs the Hidden Brain, which takes the multiple valuable yet competing factors usually inherent in most decisions and balances them in a value judgement of what seems the best path forward.

But also recall, the Aware Brain’s default mode is that of a press secretary, defending the judgement because this takes less energy than grappling with a challenging dilemma. Above all, the brain is tasked with conserving energy to be ready for the next threat.

As we saw in the last blog post, when the view can no longer be defended based on the ‘facts,’ the person’s response is often ‘well, that’s just how I feel.’ Now doesn’t that sound like a right minded, Hidden Brain judgement? Doesn’t that reflect a more intuitive, more right minded process, not something that reflects a parsing of the world and less of an intent to manipulate and control? Doesn’t that demonstrate the pendulum is swinging back the other way which may well serve mankind better?

Unfortunately, I think not. Recall the press secretary is very influential and has many tools at its disposal to rationalize, justify, and defend. It is highly motivated to control the narrative in order to deliver its desired outcome. And it truly believes only it knows the proper path forward.

What we are seeing is the press secretary even more effectively dominating the scene. By suppressing the flow of information about the world to just what it wants to share, it deprives the Hidden Brain of data that would have an impact on its decision making and value judgements. Surely the Hidden Brain is picking up on cues from the world; there is much perceived outside of awareness. But this appears to be no match for the over bearing press secretary. In effect, as we see the world more and more from MacGilchrist’s left sided brain’s perspective, the Hidden Brain is being bullied into discounting its own perceptions, manipulated by only selected data made available by the inner press secretary.

The Hidden Brain is actually made up of many ‘voices,’ each with a particular concern and each trying to tell the mind what it should do based on its concern. What the Hidden Brain chooses is not a mediated settlement, but rather the loudest voice wins. That is usually the voice whose concern is felt to be the biggest threat at the moment. Those other voices are in there, just drowned out for the time being. When a person says, well, ‘its just the way I feel,’ that is honest based on the loudest voice dominating their Hidden Brain’s judgement. And in the absence of getting all the data, its not too hard to imagine the perceived biggest concern of the moment may not actually be the greatest risk to the individual at that time.

What we are seeing as an anti-science perspective by many is not anti-analytical at all. On the contrary, it is the result of analysis gone too far - the press secretary’s desire to manipulate in order to control in its zeal to get to its best possible outcome. Rather than representing a more right sided, intuitive world view, it represents more of what MacGilchrist called the left sided brain’s role.

Remember the Dunning Krueger affect- confidence outpaces competence at first-‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ because a person lacks the experience and the context, which are right minded characteristics according to MacGilchrist’s construct. Once a person has experiences that challenge their competence, there is a possibility to embark on a gradually increasing amount of competence that gives rise to an appropriate degree of confidence.

A person can, however, also ignore, dismiss or discount those experiences and never progress on that journey. Is this why we hear of patients on ventilators and about to die refusing to acknowledge the reality of the Covid they have? Is this why some of us persist in using rationalizations that have long been disproved? Is this why some have such difficulty with seeing science roll out in real time, unable it seems to incorporate new learning about Covid and adjust beliefs?

When a person becomes aware and acknowledges those experiences, there is an opportunity to move along the path described by the Dunning Krueger affect and build the competence that results in an appropriate degree of confidence. That takes acknowledging the inner press secretary may no longer provide the best path to truly succeed.

We need the Hidden Brain to be an equal co-partner. We need the Aware Brain to see its role as informing the Hidden Brain, not dominating it. We need the pendulum swing that has been so unidirectional since the 1700’s to swing back. We need to recapture the best balance so our mind can do its best work.

And this is why the most important question one can ask is : ‘what am I missing?

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