Quirks & Quarks

Our brains have a hard time letting go of 'fake news'

Even when there's no real evidence, it's hard to shake what we think is true.
This image was purportedly chosen as "photo of the year" by a National Geographic photographer. But the picture doesn't exist and the image is a composite. (Shutterstock)

Today, more than ever, we are bombarded with information. And how do our brains deal with the constant assault?  How do we know what's real and what's fake? 

It turns out our brains are still "wired" to deal with the world as it was 10,000 years ago. And back then, crucial information came in slowly and was relatively straightforward. "The water from that well isn't safe" or "our rival tribe are good hunters."  Our ancestors survival depended on holding on to these simple truths. 

A FAKE photo claims to Hurricane Sandy clouds above the Statue of Liberty in New York.

One of the consequences of this evolutionary lag, as neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains, is that our brains are still inclined to cling dearly to what we believe to be true. So in today's world, having our beliefs contested is challenging for our brains. 

Even once evidence is taken away, or refuted, we have what Levitin calls "belief perseverance." It's hard to shake what we think is true. 

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Levitin says that our genetics and neural preferences are half of the story. Family, friends, education and environment all contribute to shaping our beliefs.  

In his new book, " A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age" Levitin suggests that with education, training, and relying on reputable sources, we can fight our brain's urge to cling to lies, half-truths and outdated information. 

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