The Edge Question 1

It is January again and time for the Edge Question. The answers are out (here). This year’s question:


Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?




Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?


I have picked out some answers here.


Two people responded with a plea to retire the left-brain right-brain myth. It seems to even stretch the point to call this a ‘scientific idea’. I think it is even a harmful idea. It is often part of a con or a half-baked self-help method. Blakemore and Kosslyn wrote on this one.


Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (Royal Society University Research Fellow and Full Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London; co-author, The Learning Brain)


…The notion that the two hemispheres of the brain are involved in different ‘modes of thinking’ and that one hemisphere dominates over the other has become widespread, in particular in schools and the workplace. There are numerous websites where you can find out whether you are left-brained or right-brained and that offer to teach you how to change this. This is pseudo-science and is not based on knowledge of how the brain works….Whether left-brain/right-brain notions should influence the way people are educated is highly questionable. There is no validity in categorizing people in terms of their abilities as either a left-brain or a right-brain person. In terms of education, such categorization might even act as an impediment to learning, not least because it might be interpreted as being innate or fixed to a large degree. Yes, there are large individual differences in cognitive strengths. But idea that people are left-brained or right-brained needs to be retired.


Stephen M. Kosslyn (Founding Dean, Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute)


Solid science sometimes devolves into pseudoscience, but the imprimatur of being science nevertheless may remain. No better example of this is the popular “left brain/right brain” narrative about the specializations of the cerebral hemispheres. According to this narrative, the left hemisphere is logical, analytic, and linguistic whereas the right is intuitive, creative, and perceptual. Moreover, each of us purportedly relies primarily on one half-brain, making us “left-brain thinkers” or “right-brain thinkers.” …First, the idea that each of us relies primarily on one or the other hemisphere is not empirically justifiable. The evidence indicates that each of us uses all of our brain, not primarily one side or the other. The brain is a single, interactive system, with the parts working in concert to accomplish a given task. Second, the functions of the two hemispheres have been mischaracterized…


Gruber puts forward another candidate for retirement that also features often in the popular press and is even found in some therapies. It has always bothered me - why is sadness always treated as bad and happiness as good?


June Gruber (Assistant Professor of Psychology, Yale University)


One idea in the study of emotion and its impact on psychological health is overdue for retirement: that negative emotions (like sadness or fear) are inherently bad or maladaptive for our psychological well-being, and positive emotions (like happiness or joy) are inherently good or adaptive….(evidence that negative emotion is not always bad) First, from an evolutionary perspective, negative emotions aid in our survival—they provide important clues to threats or problems that need our attention (such as an unhealthy relationship or dangerous situation). Second, negative emotions help us focus: they facilitate more detailed and analytic thinking, reduce stereotypic thinking, enhance eyewitness memory, and promote persistence on challenging cognitive tasks. Third, attempting to thwart or suppress negative emotions—rather than accept and appreciate them—paradoxically backfires and increases feelings of distress and intensifies clinical symptoms of substance abuse, overeating, and even suicidal ideation. Counter to these hedonic theories of well-being, negative emotions are hence not inherently bad for us. Moreover, the relative absence of them predicts poorer psychological adjustment….(evidence that positive emotion is not always good) First, positive emotions foster more self-focused behavior, including increased selfishness, greater stereotyping of out-group members, increased cheating and dishonesty, and decreased empathic accuracy in some contexts. Second, positive emotions are associated with greater distractibility and impaired performance on detail-oriented cognitive tasks. Third, because positive emotion may promote decreased inhibition it has been associated with greater risk-taking behaviors and mortality rates. Indeed, the presence of positive emotions is not always adaptive and sometimes can impede our well-being and even survival….the context in which an emotion unfolds can determine whether it helps or hinders an individual’s goal, or which types of emotion regulatory strategies (reappraising or distracting) will best match the situation…


Freud’s theories have mostly disappeared except for those that have entered the language as metaphors. But repression still seems to be generally accepted as more than a metaphor. Again this belief may actually be causing harm.


David G. Myers (Social Psychologist; Hope College; Author, Psychology, 10th Edition)


In today’s Freud-influenced popular psychology, repression remains big. People presume, for example, that unburying repressed traumas is therapeutic. …Actually, say today’s memory researchers, there is little evidence of such repression, and much evidence of its opposite. …Traumas more commonly get etched on the mind as persistent, haunting memories. Moreover, extreme stress and its associated hormones enhance memory, producing unwanted flashbacks that plague survivors….The scientist-therapist “memory war” lingers, but it is subsiding. Today’s psychological scientists appreciate the enormity of unconscious, automatic information processing, even as mainstream therapists and clinical psychologists report increasing skepticism of repressed and recovered memories.


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