Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Is certainty a dopameme?

OK, first a disclaimer: dopameme is a word I made up, just because I thought it was necessary. I'm not entirely sure yet of everything it might mean..
Here is the definition.
Dopameme: Noun; Combination of the name of a neurotransmitter in the brain involved in feeling pleasure, "dopamine", and the term "meme" as coined by Richard Dawkins meaning a thought virus.

A "Dopameme" is a feel-good idea which:

1. forms part of a belief system (e.g., "new age" notions or pseudo/antiscience)
2. keeps people from learning to see the world rationally
3. stubbornly persists through generations, because the emotional comfort or pleasure it provides the person who harbours it ensures it will be replicated frequently in that individual's brain and easily passed on to others via social and conversational contact
4. gets recycled endlessly through books sold at spiritual and self-help bookstores, thus helping support the economy, thus further ensuring its continued survival

Dopamemes can be found in any walk of life but find particularly fertile ground in the helping professions, if fact are actively cultivated by many of them which appear to base their whole existence around farming them for profit.

This morning Harriet Hall at Science-Based Medicine reviewed a new book in her blog entry On Being Certain; the book is On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, by Robert Burton. In her review Hall says,
"A “feeling of knowing” probably had an evolutionary advantage. If we are certain, we can act on that certainty rather than hesitating like Hamlet. Certainty makes us feel good: it rewards learning, and it keeps us from wasting time thinking too much; but it impairs flexibility."

This is intriguing, and makes me want to expand the definition of "Dopameme" (the extent of which I am still uncertain) to include a new point:

5. like "certainty", provides emotional comfort by removing the cognitive dissonance of "not knowing."

Coincidentally there has been a very busy thread called Chiropractic and Stroke, also by Harriet Hall, with many comments (arguments from "certainty"), running concurrently.

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