The world is ruled by shape-shifting lizards, the moon landing was wrong, and a UFO crashed in Roswell. Where do conspiracy theories come from? Professor WÅodzisÅaw Duch of the Faculty of Physics, Astronomy and Computer Science of the Nicolaus Copernicus University (NCU) decided to examine the process of their development in the brain. An article dealing with this question has just been published in a prestigious journal “Patterns” (Cell Press).
The multitude of conspiracy theories that people believe in all over the world is astounding. They accompany each significant event: a disaster, an assassination, the death of a famous person or, currently, the Covid-19 pandemic. Because the formation of a distorted image of reality is so prevalent, this topic has been covered by many scientists. Various studies, articles and books using psychological, sociological, political or anthropological approaches have been published. However, the alleged mechanism of conspiracy theories is still the subject of speculation as the problem is little studied by natural scientists.
Memes in the head
An exception is Professor Wlodzislaw Duch of the Computer Science Department of the Faculty of Physics, Astronomy and Computer Science, NCU, (Torun, Poland). For years, his scientific interests have focused on artificial intelligence, neural networks, computing, quantum physics as well as cognitive science. Ten years ago, he wrote his first report on memetics, conspiracy theories, the representation of memes as attracting states of neural networks in the brain, linking it to the formation of conspiracy theories. His article entitled “Memetics and Neural Models of Conspiracy Theories”, has just appeared in Reasons (Cell Press), a highly acclaimed open-access journal publishing original and groundbreaking data science texts.
âIt’s one of those lasting things in my professional life. I tried to publish this work for so many years. Even though I listed 10 potential reviewers, no one felt competent enough for it. to revise, and therefore, the newspapers rejected it, “explains Prof. Duch. “The concept seemed too innovative. Plus, it concerns the subtle processes that take place in the brain. Neuroscientists prefer experiments on rats, so they don’t have a chance to take a closer look at the subject of theories. The conspiracy computer models, in turn, are not concerned with the subtle phenomena addressed by memetics.
Richard Dawkins is at the origin of memetics. He used the word samee (from the Greek root that is to say imitation) to name the bits of information “inserted into the head”, those which quickly integrate into the structure of the neural connections of the brain, and whose behavior is similar to that of genes.
âMemetics is therefore the theory of human behavior and provides a common paradigm for cultural studies, religious studies, sociology and other areas of social studies that describe our mental space. The main challenge it faces is the identifying memes, studying their reproduction, spreading and developing, “says Professor Duch.” But, what is the meme from a physical and neuroscientific point of view? It has not been described so far. “
Determinants of the brain
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
“Because that’s how their brains work. We think the way our brains allow us to do,” says Professor Duch. âOn the one hand, we are dealing with genetic determinism: human cognitive capacities and affective reactions are very varied and depend on the presence of genes responsible for building the individual brain structure, for example COMT, DARPP-32, DRD2 – genes linked to dopamine, an important neurotransmitter; therefore, genes determine personality, predispositions, skills, but not particular decisions.
On the other hand, genetic determinism only partially affects our neural determinism, namely our brain formation resulting from our life experience, our education, our culture and our religion.
âWe cannot think differently than our neural activity allows,â explains Professor Duch. âThe whole history of a given individual, his experience beginning in the fetal stage, can influence the easy activation of certain neurons in the brain while other neurons require strong stimulation to be activated. It would be interesting to know how some of the bits of information we receive are turned into memes and reproduced while others go unnoticed.
âThe formation of biological and psychological mechanisms of false belief and therefore conspiracy theories is obviously very complex. Accepting distorted images of reality can be a side effect of many different factors such as education or life experience, and that is why they are so difficult to study.
âPlus, accepting simple explanations can be satisfying; it saves energy (and the brain consumes enormous energy), brings a pleasant feeling of understanding. In contrast, complex explanations take a lot of effort and time to be fully understood. false, the explanation is therefore attractive: it is always better than no explanation at all, âexplains Professor Duch.
Wells of false beliefs
In his article, Professor Duch presents one of the possible mechanisms for the formation of conspiracy theories in the brain.
“Emotional arousal or difficult situations induce a temporarily higher neuroplasticity of the brain to make it memorize situations that affect us. After a traumatic situation, a sudden explanation can quickly reduce brain plasticity,” freezing “the false images”, explains Professor Duch. âAll kinds of gossip becomes unambiguously associated with an emotional experience. The flow of new information is combined with the built-in memory traces; it can self-organize to create memes that attract many accidental patterns of brain activation that represent memories and concepts. In neural networks. such states are called attractors. At the mental level, they appear as memes, with many accidental and false associations, destroying the relationships between different states of memory. This pattern of conspiracy belief formation can be called the High Neuroplasticity Rapid Freeze (RFHN).
âWe can now imagine that such a condensation of a conceptual framework begins to cause the association of the same memory trace with completely independent observations – continues prof. Duch. – This is the model that I tried to present in computer simulations: there is a conceptual framework according to which almost everything merges in one place. In the terminology of dynamical systems, many attracting states form a “sink” .
“This is why fighting conspiracy theories is so difficult. In the brains of those who believe in them (even if they hear an argument contradicting what they think), memeplexes, that is, memes complexes linked to a given subject emerge.
“And when it emerges, it is also reinforced”, explains Professor Duch. “In the brain’s neural network, each excitation of memory strengthens its pattern of activation, causing stronger associations of different, if not more distant, information. Such a memory trace creates a ‘basin of attraction’ in our body. conceptual framework, and more and more thoughts and observations fall into that pool. It is a physical process. It is something that cannot be changed by simple persuasion. And the physical change of brain connections is difficult because it requires very energy-consuming processes.
Professor Duch admits that in the near future he has no plans to perform experiments involving the human brain. “Such experiments would be considered unethical because, to some extent, they would be based on confusing people’s minds. It is also difficult to see subtle changes at the neural level with current experimental techniques. Nonetheless, we have a range of sophisticated tools that may soon help us do more. The world is big and many good research teams are continuing their education. I hope my work inspires others to undertake research. in this area, âsays Professor Duch.
As Torun’s researcher points out, the simulations he presents should draw attention to the need to analyze the types of distortions that commonly appear in neural networks. More complex neural models will be needed to allow predictions comparable to the results given by neuroimaging and behavioral experiments. But even such simple models can be applied to illustrate the alleged processes responsible for the formation of different conspiracy theories. The next step will be to perform more sophisticated simulations.
Duch W. Memetics and neural models of conspiracy theories. Reasons. Published online September 25, 2021: 100353. doi: 10.1016 / j.patter.2021.100353
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