Some new research was published last month in Frontiers In Neuroscience*. In it, the authors investigated their theory that belief is a fast, automatic neurological process, but scepticism uses a slower, more fragile system.
As they conclude: “Belief is first, easy, inexorable with comprehension of any cognition […] Disbelief is retroactive, difficult, vulnerable to disruption […]”
In fact, they investigated that the disbelief process is tied to one particular brain structure, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), by showing fictitious television ads to a group of patients, some with damage to the vmPFC. The numbers were small, but participants with a damaged vmPFC did show a substantial difference: they were twice as likely as those who were healthy — or had other, different brain damage — to be taken in by adverts which were even designed to “give away” their dubious precept.
The theory presented in the paper is that in everyone, an assertion is automatically believed once it is understood, but the vmPFC then takes part in a process to challenge the truth and mentally “tag” the assertion as false or unproven.
Clearly, at least some scepticism is essential for normal cognition and functioning in the world, but it’s likely that we all have different levels of activity in the vmPFC. I, for example, obviously have an Olympic-quality vmPFC, because I automatically challenge the truth of everything I hear. Others may be more gullible.
Unfortunately, the vmPFC is one of the parts of the brain which naturally deteriorates with age. It is known that the elderly are more likely to be taken in by financial frauds or Nigerian scams, although a general mental decline with age might be as important a factor. But it would be good practice to help elderly relatives with financial or other decisions by encouraging them to be sceptical.
I have no idea whether you can prolong the active life of the vmPFC by exercising it, but I’m going to try. Every day I’ll be disbelieving six impossible things before breakfast.
* Full article available at <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3391647/>