Mental exercises can shape your opinions without your awareness
At some point in life, you’ve probably engaged in an argument about someone else’s (obviously wrong) opinion. Just as often, you’ve probably offered various facts and demonstrations of logic that went nowhere, suggesting that there’s really no way to change a person’s mind about something. There have been lots of looks at how to craft your words to reshape someone’s point of view, but a new experiment does away with the words, and sense of opposition, entirely. All you need is a lot of time and an fMRI machine.
Actually, to a certain extent, getting live scans isn’t strictly necessary for this concept, but it certainly helps. The core idea is that you can get people to change their own preferences by more or less exercising the part of the brain that assigns that preference. This can be done without the person realizing it, but the resulting opinions seem to stick, holding true for at least a few months after the experiment.
Test participants started by looking at photos of faces, and rating those images as positive, negative, or neutral. While they thought about these preferences, their brain activity was recorded and sorted, with particular attention paid to the cingulate cortex. The cingulate cortex is part of the limbic system, and plays a role in emotion, learning, memory and motivation. In this case, researchers wanted to see what activity in this part of the brain corresponded with positive or negative opinions so that it could be used as a sort of mental template later on.
Unknowingly practicing positivity
Once this baseline opinions were recorded, each participant was shown a face they had rated as neutral, and then asked to focus on an image of a nondescript disk. Participants were then asked to “grow the disk” with their mental activity, even if that request was a bit confusing at first. Since researchers were in control of this visual prompt, they triggered the disk’s growth only if the participant started activating their cingulate cortex in a similar pattern to when they were rating faces. Some participants were set to be successful when replicating the activity from a negative opinion, while others were set on a path to practice their negative opinions.
By the end of these training sessions, test participants’ neutral opinions of the pre-training face shifted. People who “grew” the disk by imitating their brains’ positive activity patterns ended up like the neutral faces more, and vice versa, even though none of them were aware that the disk had anything to do with that face. The lack of transparency may seem slightly alarming to anyone not working in marketing, but people suffering from trauma or depression may be able to benefit from this kind of mental exercise. Arguments on the internet, however, may still be a lost cause.
Source: Brain training can alter opinions of faces by Laura Sanders, Science News