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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

Have Parasites Infected the American Brain?

A country, once famous for its common sense, faces a pandemic of bad ideas.

Photo by Sharon Pittaway on Unsplash

This essay originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

Why are so many bad ideas infecting our body politic? (Examples: COVID-19 is a hoax; Jan. 6 was a typical tourist day at the U.S. Capitol; top Democrats operated a child sex-trafficking ring from a D.C. pizza joint.) And why are they so resistant to the antibodies of rational argument?

If you’re wondering what’s ailing the American brain, once famous for its hard lock on common sense, you may be as delighted as I was to hear an answer that arrived recently over my car radio.

On a typically thought-provoking broadcast of Think from KERA in Dallas, host Krys Boyd introduced philosopher Andy Norman by echoing his argument that “bad ideas are parasites, not like parasites … but actual parasites that feed off our cognitive resources with no regard for the ways they leave us damaged and dysfunctional.”

Norman lays out his ideas in a new book, Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think, and I dove into it like a man with a fire in his head. His premise seems indubitably reasonable: People infected with “mind pathogens” can’t help themselves, any more than, say, people fighting a case of COVID can wish away their symptoms.

In Norman’s view, that explains why we’re living inside a pandemic of pernicious ideas: “Extremist world views, conspiracy thinking and hyper-partisan politics spread like cancers online,” he writes. “Mass shootings, terror bombings and hate crimes occur almost daily.”

When this onslaught of crazy, harmful ideas overwhelms the mind’s natural immune defenses, the theory goes, we need a jab of “mind vaccine” in the form of restorative thinking techniques to help “prevent deadly outbreaks of unreason.” Accordingly, Norman supplies a 12-step program for improving our “cognitive immune health.”

As I say, I found Norman’s argument infectious. It reminded me of what iconic philosopher Hannah Arendt told an interviewer years ago and what today, in my view, constitutes a clear danger to our democracy: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

And yet, as I clicked through my e-copy of Mental Immunity, I wondered if Norman’s parasite analogy doesn’t go a bit wobbly. For one thing, humanistic tips to hone our thinking skills, of which Norman has many good ones, don’t work with anything like the same precision as a messenger RNA vaccine zeroing in on COVID bugs.

For example, Norman properly criticizes educators’ uncertain preoccupation with critical thinking skills as a means to inoculate the young against bad ideas. These efforts, the author says, have largely failed. “Skills alone do not a healthy immune system make,” he says. They need to be bolstered by “traits of character — things like curiosity, diligence and fair-mindedness” and humility.

Sage advice. Teaching critical thinking often fails not so much for its methods, but because they’re easy to overlook in our zeal to train students to fill slots in the professional world rather than to prepare them to conduct their lives as citizens, voters and human beings.

But nurturing character traits can be a nebulous, chicken-or-egg proposition that bears little resemblance to the scientific method.

As is, more than a few of Norman’s prescriptions are a deft repackaging of Critical Thinking 101. He points out, for example, that it’s “easy to overgeneralize.” “Internalize this truth,” he says, “and you’re more apt to ask questions … to look for exceptions to seductive rules.”

And again: “Find the truth in dissenting voices … . Deep learning isn’t just additive: it’s clarifying, constructive and coherence enhancing. If you want a worldview worth sharing, craft one.”

What’s the biggest bug in Norman’s argument? I decided it’s mainly in his choice of that overly-nifty “mind-parasites” metaphor. It’s a clever construct, to be sure. But conflating two such dissimilar phenomena, parasites and ideas, biology and the iffier terrain of cognition, is a tricky business; it smacks of the chronic temptation to compare the human brain to a computer. The two things are wired quite differently.

Norman is more on-target when he sticks with a safer, if humdrum analogy. If “the mind is a garden,” he writes, “its immune system is like its gardener. The latter’s job is to weed the garden of bad ideas, seed it with good ones, and arrange plantings into beautiful and useful patterns.”

Now he’s talking. Good teachers are very much like good gardeners. On their best days, they can plant in students the salubrious bugs of curiosity and intellectual humility in ways that help open them to the idea of deep-dive thinking as a kind of true adventure. Curiosity supplies the energy to dig and humility puts efforts in a reasonable perspective.

Let me add that the young people I teach at the University of Texas at Austin have a lot on the ball. For one thing, they’re masters of “fluid intelligence,” the ability to connect disparate pieces of information at lightning speed; they have a lot to teach the rest of us about how to effectively navigate our information-sloppy world.

Where they typically need help is in cultivating “crystallized intelligence,” the slow-walked accretion of knowledge that allows us, through reading, thinking and reflection, where deep calls to deep, to make connections that pile up meaningful context and get us to a truer understanding of things.

Do better thinking techniques generate curiosity and humility or vice versa? It’s hard for me to say. But in my limited experience, it’s just as likely that you’ll succeed by first locating in a student something that profoundly interests them, even if they’ve only grabbed the idea by the tail, and then giving them the tools to go after it.

In his 2001 book How to Read and Why, the late Yale literary scholar Harold Bloom advised intellectual adventurers to “find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and that addresses you” in an intimate way, “free of time’s tyranny.”

By “near” Bloom didn’t mean a social media hot take or even tips to sharpen your thinking; he meant what’s near to your heart, what speaks to you, directly and deeply. Find that sweet spot of inspiration and the rigors of deeper thinking will follow.

As I explored the pages of Mental Immunity, the thing that most impressed me, I think, was Norman’s prescription for how to create a non-judgmental space for people who hold opposing views to come together to reason in “the search for wisdom.”

“Philosophers embarked on this quest long ago,” the philosopher writes, “and quickly realized that reasoning together is a powerful way to enhance judgment.” It requires us to “adopt a collaborative mindset, listen intently, and try to learn from the objections of others. You need to express reservations, test ideas for viability, and try not to rely on untested opinions. Above all, you must yield to ‘better reasons.’”

And as Bloom reminds us, we read, and I would add think, “in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests.” And in a world where information “is endlessly available to us,” the real question is “where shall wisdom be found?”

Andy Norman has plenty of wisdom to share about how to defeat fevered, fractured thinking. It’s just that the bug he planted in my brain isn’t what I thought it would be.

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