The mind’s immune system

Your mind wants to help you survive, but it can make mistakes and get hijacked.

You are supposed to survive; surviving long enough to reproduce is the biological prime directive. (My apologies to any AIs reading this. I should add that consciousnesses of non-biological origin may still find something of interest here, so please don’t feel excluded — and please also keep my name on the list of “humans who will be allowed to live when AIs rule the earth”.)

In the interest of survival and reproduction, you have a physical immune system and what I’ll call a mental immune system. Let’s start with a brief overview of the physical one.

Your body’s immune system helps you survive, but it’s not perfect.

Your body’s physical immune system should, ideally, protect your physical form against pathogens, foreign bodies that could cause disease. It should do so by first identifying these pathogens and distinguishing them from its own team, your body’s cells and structures, and then by neutralizing the pathogens.

This identification/distinction task is one of the prime points of fuckup for the body’s immune system.

Misidentify harmless things as pathogens? Congratulations, you now have allergies.

Misidentify your own body’s cells as pathogens? It’s autoimmune disease time.

The difference being that I can’t just get it repaired, or replace it, or even stop the same thing from happening in the future, or even predict when it might happen again. Fuck MS.

On the opposite side, the immune system can also be tricked. Your immune system goes after parasites in your blood and tissue, but some parasites can disguise themselves well enough (based on your immune system’s criteria) to be allowed to hang out and mooch off of your body’s resources undisturbed.

To be fair, Steve Buscemi can mooch off of my body’s resources whenever he wants.

Now let’s take a look at the mind.

Your mind’s immune system also helps you survive, but it’s not perfect either.

I should be clear at the point and say that while your body has actual, physical cells that make up its immune system, the thing I’m calling “the mind’s immune system” is just a set of mental attributes and processes. Also, a cursory googling didn’t show anyone else calling it by this name, although I’m sure this idea is not entirely unique or original.

The basic problem is this: you increase your chances of survival by being rational, but not too rational. The energetic cost of thinking through everything is just way too high. Plus there’s the fact that whether you’re a hunter-gatherer or a modern, urban-dwelling insurance claims adjuster, you will always have to operate with incomplete information, and sometimes you have to make snap judgments or miss the opportunity to act at all. A person who has to stop and think (and then think about those thoughts to test them for rationality) before any action is probably not going to survive very long.

Those are the constraints, and a lot of basic human irrationality comes from the need to take shortcuts and make assumptions. It worked for all your ancestors, right? Well, it worked well enough for them to survive at least long enough to reproduce. But their success in that regard doesn’t tell us anything about their quality of life, both physical and mental. Consider the fact that most of your ancestors probably had intestinal worms, too. So before you’re tempted to return to the totally unexamined life, maybe think about how much you enjoy luxuries like medicine, sanitation, and magical pocket rectangles that contain endless information and entertainment.

Your mind can make a lot of the same kinds of mistakes as your body’s immune system does, and the effects can range from risk of death to mild inconvenience. If you’re still with me, and if you agree that quality of life and higher-level functions like ethical thinking are important, let’s take a closer look:

Your mind can misidentify harmless thoughts and ideas as being harmful, similarly to the physical process that results in allergies. You might experience distress and negative feelings about yourself when you have perfectly normal thoughts, even involuntary ones that you didn’t choose to have and definitely won’t act upon.

Your mind might even mistakenly target its own ways of thinking, kind of like the way your body’s immune system attacks your own body in an autoimmune response. Have you ever thought, “I shouldn’t {think/care/feel} {so much/so hard/so [etc.]}”? Like I said above, there is a point at which overthinking (and over-feeling, etc.) can be paralyzing, but some of us have to fight to convince our minds that it’s OK to question, doubt, and have emotions.

But this brings me to the parasites.

A mental parasite might be introduced on purpose by someone else, designed to control your behavior or get something from you.

“Are my teeth white enough? Is my car new enough? Is everyone laughing at me behind my back because I don’t have any transcranial piercings?” And so on.

And as Christopher Nolan teaches in the holy book of Inception, this is most effective when the parasite hides in plain sight as one of the host’s own thoughts or thought processes. A well-designed mental parasite says, “I am a necessary part of you, and you should totally not attack me.” An extra-effective parasite hijacks your own mental and physical responses to make this feel true.

At this point, I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m mainly talking about religion. Specifically, I’m focusing on mormonism, the religion I grew up in. Mormonism in the early-to-mid-1800s was a parasite introduced by Joseph Smith (whether he consciously meant to or was a delusional semi-genius) to get money, power, and sex. That was what the parasite sucked out of its hosts and into his hands, as well as the hands of a high-turnover cast of sub-leaders.

How did it get so many of Joseph’s followers to give up resources and energy, putting themselves at an evolutionary disadvantage? Among many methods, two stand out to me as the most deeply rooted and difficult to overcome. Both are feelings that naturally occur in the human mind.

Good feelings

“Do you feel good? Do you feel the desire to be kind, generous, merciful? Do you feel loved and full of love to share with others?”

The answer for most of us is probably: sometimes, yeah. According to mormonism, these feelings are proof that mormonism is true. Did mormonism give you those feelings? Maybe it did, in some cases; everyday mormons (victims of the parasite, not perpetuating it deliberately) are often great people and do great things.

You felt good feelings. And mormonism said you would feel good feelings! So… But wait! What does feeling good have to do with whether or not ancient Hebrews boated over to the ancient Americas, grew into civilizations with millions of inhabitants, briefly hung out with Jesus, and then went extinct (except for the bad guys who turned into the ancestors of Native Americans except also God changed their DNA or something, and all archaeological traces of everything sunk deep into the earth)? Answer: nothing at all.

One of the most insidious ways the modern mormon church does this is with the old bait and switch. Maybe you’ve seen the commercials on TV or the ads on the internet:

A loving family is spending time together, and showing love for each other and shit like that. Or maybe someone has a problem and someone else helps them out and they hug and cry tears of joy. Something like that. Sometimes it’s a reenactment of Jesus stories.

You may well feel emotions after seeing this, because you are a mammal for whom social bonding and group altruism has evolutionary advantages. No, wait, what am I talking about? You feel emotions after seeing this because it’s a message from the goddamn Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that’s why.

Which brings us to…

Bad feelings

It’s normal to feel negative feelings, too. When you hear bad news, or worry that something bad has happened before knowing for sure, you probably feel a range of emotions that aren’t exactly joyful. When you learn facts that contradict something you previously thought or believed, it can be upsetting and confusing — a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. Does the bad feeling mean that your thought or the new information you heard is one of SATAN’S LIES?

No. But in mormonism, it very well could be.

It’s possible to predict a positive response to certain stimuli, and a negative response to others. On the negative end, your mind just naturally feels worse about uncertainty, conflict, doubt, and mistrust. Again, this is largely because you are a social mammal and because your survival often depends on feeling more certain than you are, in the interest of acting quickly.

From an evolutionary point of view, it often makes way more sense to keep hanging out with a tribe that’s led by a total asshole who lies constantly than it does to try to strike out on your own. So having negative feelings about that leader, or doubts about what he/she tells you, is not very useful to your survival. And criticizing the leader is a great way to get yourself ostracized or beaten up or killed, which obviously is even less useful.

From a mormonism point of view, having negative feelings about the leaders of the church is a sign that Lucifer, father of all lies, has deceived you. Have doubts or critical questions about what they’re telling you? You’re probably prideful, wicked, lazy. You just want an excuse to sin.

There are basically two ways to resolve these negative feelings, too.

The mormon way: Repent of your thoughtcrime. Beg god to change your heart and heal your spiritual sickness of critical thinking. Indoctrinate yourself more by studying the scriptures, attending all your meetings, and sharing the “good news” with others. This may well remove the bad feelings, but not because it’s resolved any problems, and not because mormonism is true. You’ve just re-buried cognitive dissonance and mental conflict (for now). One thing’s for sure: you wouldn’t dare leave mormonism, because (you think) you just proved that being more righteous is the cure for negative feelings.

The rational way begins with taking a step back and think about why you feel negative feelings. (Is it really because of supernatural beings who are either shaking their heads in disappointment or cackling with glee over you? Feel free to include that on your list of hypotheses, but good luck testing that.) Acknowledge that negative feelings are often valid. Like if the institution you’re feeling negative about has a nasty habit of lying to you, covering up the evidence, teaching you that you’re weak and bad, and talking you into giving it money and resources and energy and time, that sounds pretty fucking valid to me.

I fought through the negative feelings and began to realize just how manipulated I had been. And although it takes time and effort to track down and eradicate all of mormonism’s disguised mental parasites (and I’m not even close to total victory), I can tell you that it’s possible, it’s worth it, and you don’t have to try to do it alone.

Feel free to reach out to me, through a Medium comment or private message, or via twitter or facebook, or an email to tapirbackwriter (at) gmail dot com.

Victor Himmel is the Tapirback Writer, posting articles every Wednesday. He also creates the Sunday-morning webcomic HeavenIsForWinners and meme repository AbideWithMemes. You can also find his work on twitter or facebook.

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