A formative experience. 

At the age of 15, I had a seemingly inconsequential experience which I have thought about ever since. I was walking with my older brother up Broadway. It was in the days of the Cadillac tailfins. Cadillac had made this odd innovation to automobile design which was very successful and copied by Chrysler, among others. We walked by a Cadillac, and I said, “There’s another Cadillac.” He said, “No, it isn’t. It’s a Chrysler.” I said, “It’s a Cadillac.” “It’s a Chrysler,” he said, as we continued walking. I said, stopping, “All right, let’s go back and check.” “I don’t have to go back and check,” he said, walking on, “I’m sure. It’s a Chrysler.”

I stood there, dumbfounded. If he was so sure, why didn’t he want to go back in order to prove his smug kid brother wrong? If he wasn’t really sure, why wouldn’t he go back to settle the matter? We were just ambling along, not going anywhere in particular. I thought to run back and check the name on the car myself, but I knew somehow if I did that and discovered it was, in fact, a Cadillac, he would only tell me I was wrong and keep walking. It was as if he had made up his mind and that was that. Nothing more was going to get in.

As the years have gone by, I have wondered just how some people manage to hold onto their beliefs, some of them ridiculous, in the face of all kinds of contrary evidence. The lesson I took away from my Cadillac experience is that they stopped listening, or looking. Certainly, they stopped learning.

My brother and I had the same parents, although mine were 10 years older; but we grew up to be very different people. He became a television producer and at one point in his life filmed psychic phenomena, which seemed to me absurd. The psychic phenomena were absurd, and he was absurd to film them. (See my blog posts, “Psychic Phenomena in my Family” I list them 1,2,3,4,5,6.) When we were grown, meeting with my brother sometimes took on a penumbra of weirdness as he told me about his psychic surgery and astral encounters with our dead mother. I wondered if his unwillingness to check skeptically whether something was a Cadillac or a Chrysler was what led him to believe impossible things.

Even his in-laws seemed a little strange to me. I was having dinner at his house one day when his father-in-law told me about the vibrations in the vegetables he was eating. Apparently, the vibrations of tomatoes conflicted with the vibrations in the potatoes. Then there was another time, at another meal, when I sat next to an iridologist, that is, someone who can diagnose various diseases of the liver and other parts of the body by examining the spots on his client’s irises—in other words, by studying the man’s eyes with a magnifying glass. My dinner companion looked completely normal as he explained this idiotic idea to me. I began to think people will believe anything. Of course, my work as a psychiatrist has not disabused me of this idea.

When an elderly woman told me that Martians were shooting rays at her from the top of the next apartment building to excite her sexually, I knew she was being sincere. But you can get into trouble by expressing unfashionable ideas of this sort, so I advised her not to tell anyone else about the rays. She could tell me and no one else. Particularly, she should not call the police. Simply quietly holding to a nonsensical idea would not get set her apart from everyone else. I knew better than to argue with her about her delusion.

When a young man once told me that he saw his dead father go round a corner in downtown Yonkers, I believed that that was what he truly believed. In this case, I found myself arguing feebly.

“But you were at his funeral last week,” I pointed out.

“I know,” he said.

Some of these beliefs are not out and out crazy. A young woman told me she had recently met and fallen in love with someone on death row. He was basically “decent,” she reassured me. When I asked her how she knew, she referred vaguely to her “second sight.” (This is an example of love at second sight.) Despite his having been convicted of murder, she firmly believed in him. Perhaps this sort of mistake is not so uncommon.

Some patently false ideas are held by many. Take astrology. There are some (not many I hope) who believe that babies born at the same hospital at the same time are destined to share the same fate, because they were born under the same sign. There are even a smaller number who take some meaning from fortune cookies. “That’s a funny coincidence, don’t you think?” such a person said to me slyly. “Don’t you believe in synchronicity?”

And, of course, there are some whose adherence to a set of beliefs strikes those who do not believe them as fanaticism. Political and religious ideas may fall into this category. As Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary says, “Superstition is someone else’s religion.” Our political landscape right now includes some who not only disagree with basic tenets in science, such as evolution or the extended existence of the universe, they do not believe in science itself. “It is all a matter of opinion,” they say.

Strange beliefs are not limited to propositions about the physical world. People learn from others what is trueor what they think is true. It seems anyone is capable of believing anything. I know a psychiatrist who believes rocks have souls. Another fellow thinks that life is without meaning and annoys me by saying that unless patients come to believe that “life is absurd,” they have not been fully analyzed. I suppose this is a matter of doctrine, rather than an appreciation of the physical world. Similarly, there was the psychiatrist who told me that homosexuality was a form of “narcissism,” which is a good example of some words contrived into a sentence, but which mean nothing at all. People are especially likely to talk nonsense if they are considered to be an expert. If you ask some psychiatrists why Europe is behaving “schizophrenically,” they will come up with a response, even though schizophrenia is a disease of individuals and not a metaphor for the irrational behavior of different countries. The fact that I know so many wacky psychiatrists should not be taken as evidence that psychiatrists are particularly wacky; it is just that I know a lot of psychiatrists.

And there are all the businessmen and financiers who, like those who play the roulette wheel, have discovered an infallible method of winning and back those beliefs with the evidence of what happened last week or last year. I keep track of all the television pundits who have said unhesitatingly that due to tax policy, the economy is going to crash. And then it doesn’t crash; and they say the same thing for the same reasons a few years later.

And then there is the Knick backcourt player who believes the Knicks won on a particular night because it was God’s will. Evidently God is a Knicks fan, in which case I ask, where has God been these last nine or 10 years? Someone came up to me yesterday insisting that every single baseball game is fixed. I do not think this guy is putting me on. He is not thinking, I can make this guy believe anything. I believe he is telling me the absolute truth, as he sees it.

I like to think I am above all these prejudices and foolishness, but, of course, I am not. Even skeptical as I am, I can be persuaded to believe nonsense.

I was listening to a radio talk show very late one night when I was in medical school. The talk was not about anything serious. As far as I could judge, it rarely was. There was an interview with the founder of a society whose name I do not remember, but which was dedicated to dressing cows more modestly. The conversation went on for 20 minutes. No one laughed. This man made a serious case about the bare udders of undressed cows stimulating the other animals improperly, possibly including impressionable children who wandered about the fields in search of strawberries. Of course, this proposal sounded ridiculous to me, but no more ridiculous than lots of other things people affirm. Around this time my brother was tracking down a religious statue that was said to bleed tears from its eyes on various saints’ days. I could easily believe that someone found cows udders provocative. But it turned out it was a hoax. No such ridiculous society existed. I had been taken in because I thought anything was possible. Anybody could believe anything. But in this instance, I was wrong. I believed it was possible for someone to believe such a ridiculous thing. Does that make me credulous or especially cynical?

I don't think I am the only person with this problem. Suppose you read in a newspaper or heard on television that there was an organization that was promoting the use of one chopstick where previously two were required. The purpose was described in familiar terms: to save the environment, save the forests, etc. Would you believe there actually was such an organization? Suppose it was reported by a talk show host you listened to regularly? This is an absurd idea on the face of it; but I think you might entertain the idea that it was real. Maybe it is real.

(c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice column/


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