Tilting one way or the other. That’s easy. Maintaining centered balance. That’s difficult, whether we’re talking about physical, mental, or spiritual activity.
Last night, as I wrote about on my other weblog, I went to bed thinking that I probably had Lyme’s disease. A rash had appeared on my back, circling the site of a tick bite. It was Sunday and too late to do anything about it.
So I tossed and turned, pondering what lay ahead if I indeed had Lyme’s disease. I couldn’t shake the anxiety that came with my tilt toward the Yes, you do. Then, sometime in the early morning, the thought hit me: You don’t really know. It could be No, you don’t.
Right away I felt better. My situation hadn’t changed, but now I was poised on a pivot point of uncertainty. Most of my anxiety lifted. I was free floating, ready to head in any diagnostic and treatment direction that presented itself.
Which turned out to be an urgent care clinic in Bend, where in the waiting area this afternoon I had plenty of time to read some science magazines that I’d brought along. Michael Shermer’s recent essay in Scientific American, “The Political Brain,” hit home for me.
For it could as well have been called “The Anxious Brain.” Or, “The Religious Brain.” The research Shermer described speaks indirectly to all sorts of tiltings, and what happens after someone has tilted. However, it was directly aimed at detecting political biases.
Shermer, who isn’t a member of any organized political party, says:
I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.
This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence.
A brain study using functional magnetic resonance imaging pinpointed how this happens. Thirty strong Republicans and thirty strong Democrats were asked to assess statements by George Bush and John Kerry in which the 2004 presidential candidates clearly contradicted themselves.
Shermer reports that both of the true believer groups were critical of the disfavored candidate, while they let their own guy off the hook. Parts of the brain associated with emotions, conflict resolution, judgments about moral accountability, and reward/pleasure were most active. Reasoning, however, was quiescent. One of the researchers said in a press release:
Essentially, it seems as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.
In the area of religion, I’ve heard long-time followers of an Eastern meditative practice say: “If you don’t get results in meditation, this means that the guru is saving up the merit of your devotion, and it will be given to you after you die.”
Twirl, twirl, twirl.
Similarly, it is believed that if the guru asks you to do something that doesn’t make sense, this is a test of your faith in his divine perfection. So it is necessary to consider that all of the guru’s commands are right, even if some clearly appear to be wrong.
Twirl, twirl, twirl.
The doctor and I sat together in the exam room and considered the options. I liked how she brought in a book opened to the Lyme disease page. We stood side by side and read about symptoms together.
For a while she wasn’t sure what to do. Nor was I. I had hoped that she’d take a look at my rash and say, “No, you don’t have Lyme disease.” But she didn’t know enough to say that. Eventually a course of antibiotic treatment was prescribed.
Made sense to me. Better safe than sorry when it comes to a nasty bacteria that may or may not be inside my system.
I filled the prescription. The pharmacist told me to take the Doxycycline after breakfast and dinner. I went back to our cabin and read the printed instructions. The capital letters “TAKE THIS MEDICINE ON AN EMPTY STOMACH” leapt out at me.
More uncertainty. More balancing on a pivot point. Full stomach, empty stomach. Maybe I’ll go with half-empty. It seems that when I look closely at almost anything these days, what I see are choices hidden in a fog of could-be-this-could-be-that.
I used to be more inclined to leap blindly in one direction or another, just to be doing something. And then, like the study participants Shermer describes, I’d ignore any evidence that maybe, just maybe, the other way has some points in its favor.
I’m more attracted to staying in the center now and keeping options open. I sent the tick that bit me off to a lab for testing. The doctor and I talked some about what I might want to do if the tick turns out to be negative for Lyme disease.
I said, “Then I could stop taking the antibiotics.” She replied: “But first you should check out the lab’s false negative statistics. There will be some chance that the tick really does have the disease.”
You never know. You just never know. And it’s a relief to know that. The compass needle is happiest when it can swing in any direction.