On the Mind: How We Learn Facts (And Alternative Facts)

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On the Mind: How We Learn Facts (And Alternative Facts)

This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.


Following his inauguration this month, President Donald Trump disputed the attendance numbers that news organizations reported and continues to call media accuracy into question. The next day, Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway jumped to his aid on NBC’s Meet the Press, saying the White House may need to present alternative facts to the public. A few days later, Google and Facebook explained how they’re taking a stand against fake news articles and whittling them down this year. As we face conflicting reports in years ahead, we need to steel ourselves for the fake news and fake facts that influence important voting, policy and legislative decisions.

Studies Say

Scientists say it’s possible that half of us believe fake facts. And from that, fake facts turn into false memories. If we begin hearing “alternative facts” from reputable sources and they begin spreading around the water cooler, we just may believe them.

That’s why a group of scientists are interested in a “psychology vaccine” that could inoculate the public against fake news. They released a study about it last week. Just like a real vaccine, which injects dead cells from a virus into the body to encourage the immune system to recognize the living virus and kill it, small doses of misinformation could coach our brains to recognize false facts around certain news topics in the future. More research needs to be done, of course, but so far, a group of psychologists at Yale, Cambridge and George Mason University think it could be effective in conversations around climate change.

Key Takeaways

We’ve long known that there is more than one side to a story and that people view facts from different angles. We can’t stop the fake news and social media posts from flying at us, but we can dictate how they influence us. Essentially, skepticism is the ultimate weapon, a Scientific American piece said earlier this month. Knowing how the brain learns can go a long way in monitoring which facts stick—and which don’t.

New Knowledge Builds on Previous Knowledge

Neurons in the brain fire thoughts, beliefs and impulses across synapses and axoms to make the body move, digest food and record facts into memory. That means new facts match up with previous facts to be understood. This is typically explained in the context of formal learning in a classroom, for example, that multiplication and division concepts come after addition and subtraction concepts, but it applies to facts gleaned from news reports, blogs, social media and everyday person-to-person conversation as well. Building a solid, reliable foundation of evidence-based fact is the best way to judge the next news that comes your way. (Hint: Cable TV shows with opinionated talking heads are probably not the best place to start.)

Practice Makes Perfect

Your childhood sports coach knew the drill. The more you repeat an action, or in this case, a fact-gathering habit, the more your brain will believe it. Dendrites, the parts of neurons that reach out to each other and make connections in the brain, grow thicker when actions and processes are repeated. A fatty layer builds up on the dendrites to make faster connections. Linked to the point above, finding reliable sources and building a habit of fact-checking with those sources can help the brain to make stronger connections. The same is true for the flip side—the more the brain becomes used to sourcing facts from social media and clickbait headlines, the more it will respond to that, too.

Brains Learn in Different Ways

Some people learn better verbally, others aurally and others physically. The more ways a brain can observe a fact, the more likely it is to stick. Let’s take this back to school—in chemistry class, this is akin to listening to a lecture about a concept and then applying it through an experiment. In art class, you learn an artistic theory and then apply it in the studio. Similarly, the more you absorb news by reading it, listening to it, watching it and sharing it on social media, the more likely you are to pick up and record the facts. Which sources are you using, and are you using the same ones daily?

Brains Like Visuals

About half of the brain is involved in visual processing, and it quickly processes a visual scene in a tenth of a second. In fact, readers are more likely to pay attention to news stories, ads and products if accompanied by a photo, chart or video. On top of that, Cisco projects that videos will make up 80 percent of internet traffic by 2019. That’s why USA Today formatted its pages to be more visual. That’s why social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat have become so popular, and that’s why analytics on other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter show that posts with a photo or video receive more likes and comments. When consuming news online, be aware of the photos, graphics, videos, GIFs and memes that accompany what you read. Think of how many visual-only listicles and slideshows have popped up lately—and that’s only going to grow in coming years. They sure are clickable, and your brain likes when you click them, too.

We Remember the Big Picture

Reading comprehension studies show we tend to stick with an overall idea rather than the details. That’s great for gathering information, but again, this can be tricky when glossing over information online. Clickbait headlines, captions and one-liners that overly push a point or unbelievable fact may stick out to your brain and be saved for later. That’s especially true if the information is novel, complex or curious, researchers in France and at Columbia University reported last year. We’re motivated (and our brain is rewarded) when we click. What are you clicking in 2017?

Image: Duncan C, CC-BY

Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.

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