I like a nice cup of good black tea. In fact, one such cup stands in front of me just now as I am typing this. I do not have any doubts about it, I do not need to reflect on it to establish whether it is indeed so. There it is – my cup of tea, in front of me. Even if it was any other cup, not this exact one, I would still automatically recognize it as a cup (hopefully – of tea). Yet, when I think about it, the unquestionable certainty I have about this belief of mine – that what I see is a cup of tea – makes me wonder. Where does this absolute confidence come from? How can I be so sure in my belief about this cup without having to think about it even for a second? After all, quickly recognizing cups of tea is hardly a necessary skill from an evolutionary perspective. So then – how does an idea become an intuitive, automatic belief?
This article is the third in the small series I have been writing on the topic of beliefs as explored by the interdisciplinary field of study of the human mind called cognitive science. I introduced it in a broader context in the first article and talked about the circular character of our belief formation in the second article. Here, I continue with exploring what cognitive science tells us on how something becomes an intuitive belief and what this implies in case we wish to help ourselves become more flexible and open-minded in our worldviews.
Let’s return to my cup of tea. How does my mind form an automatic belief that it is, indeed, a cup? According to cognitive science, it is all about easy accessibility. What makes a belief easily accessible, even to the point of becoming intuitive? In short – repetition. As discussed in the previous article of this series, our beliefs form in a circular interplay, which then informs our worldviews. The more often a certain interplay is repeated, the more readily it turns into an intuitive belief, an automatic assumption.
Like my cup. It is a specific stimulus in my environment that I perceive (consciously or not), an object with a certain shape. My mind, operating within the limits of our human natural cognition, generates an interpretation of that stimulus – it is a cup (and not, say, a cloud). Since one of our fundamental beliefs is the tendency to trust our minds, I form a belief that I trust to be true – objects of that shape are cups. The more often this stimulus-perception-interpretation-belief interplay is repeated, the more readily accessible the respective belief becomes. The belief about cups has become so quickly and easily accessible that it is now an intuitive belief.
Another interesting thing about our minds is that the higher the accessibility of a belief, the easier it is for my mind to come up with that belief, the more I trust it. Recall – we have a natural tendency to trust our minds. I do not spend my tea drinking moments questioning whether it really is a cup that contains my tea or, rather, it is something else entirely. Such intuitive beliefs, then, form our basic assumptions, our default positions that serve as a starting point for further reflection. They flow into the circular interplay of belief and worldview formation and silently steer the direction of our thoughts – from cups to life philosophies.
Of course, since it is a circular exchange, we have the possibility to influence our intuitive beliefs and, by extension, our worldviews. This requires conscious effort and playing into the natural process of belief formation in our minds. For example, if I want to expand my general view about cups, I can deliberately expose myself to various types of objects that are considered to be cups or something like cups in various parts of the world, in different cultures, and perhaps even throughout history. What did people use to contain their beverages? What sort of objects do people use now, perhaps something that seems very unlike a cup to me?
Cups may sound like a funny example to illustrate how we can expand our worldviews, but the principle applies. If I expose my mind to a broad variety of stimuli, experiences, environments, I am giving myself a better chance to enable as diverse a set of interpretations formed by and available to my mind as I can. If I manage to do this repeatedly, even better. Such practice is likely to provide a richer intuitive basis for my further reflection to build on. There is a good reason why people talk about the benefits of broadening one’s horizons. Even if physically we remain in the same place.
1By Anonymous (China) – Walters Art Museum: Home page Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18806461