Neurosurgeon on GMOs: Keep open minds, don’t try to change them
November 27, 2017
NEW YORK — Advocates for genetic modification and the importance of sustainability would have much more success by trying to convince people to keep an open mind than trying to change the minds of people who have already taken a position on the issue, a prominent neurosurgeon said at the James Beard Food Summit last month.
"The intelligence of life is not restricted to these three pounds of flesh that are the brain. The brain does not exist without its body — it is not everything," said Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute and co-director of the Dana & David Dornsife Cognitive Neuroimaging Center at University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Without mentioning agriculture, advocates say people's views should be based on "sound science," Kaplan said, "It is easy to think of the brain as a computer and get carried away with that. But it is literally flesh and blood."
While showing a slide of the interior of the body that traced the relationship between the gut and the brain, Kaplan explained, "The gut has a lot of complexity. Some people call it the second brain … because of the role of the nervous system in regulating life."
While many people believe the brain dominates the body, "the vagus nerve carries information from the body, including the gut, to the brain," he said.
In a presentation titled "Your Brain on Food: Mapping Brain Function and Belief," Kaplan said his study led to the conclusion that "belief strength" is much higher for political views than nonpolitical views. Once someone establishes a political belief, it is very hard to change that view.
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"Separating emotion from cognition doesn't work," Kaplan said. The boundaries of the self that this system is trying to protect, including issues such as genetic modification and sustainability, "are from the gut."
Changing a belief like this, he said, is as hard as "changing a load-bearing beam in your house — it's not just changing one piece of wood. There is a high social cost to changing beliefs that are important to you."
When people are urged to change their beliefs, "sometimes confronting beliefs makes the beliefs stronger."
"As much as beliefs can connect to other people, they can separate us," he said. Beliefs, he added, are like houseguests that are easy to invite, but hard to get rid of.
Kaplan said he has found "no answers" to changing people's beliefs and therefore asks, "What can we do to keep ourselves open-minded and flexible?"
His answer is to maintain "a form of mindfulness" to "keep the brain open so the brain can change its mind." ❖