“You can’t handle the truth!”
– Col. Nathan Jessep (A Few Good Men)
Here is a small sample of things I have thought true:
- breakfast is the “most important meal of the day”
- yoga is good for nothing
- eating every 3 hours is optimal for body composition
- fasting will destroy my gains
- 8–12 reps are best for muscle growth
- low reps are the only way to get strong
- you should only have carbs after workouts
- meditation is for weird monks in Tibet
- Crossfit is mostly for keeping physical therapists in business (OK, this one is true)
The mind is resistant to change. Research has shown that the brain’s emotional centers are activated by evidence that runs counter to our beliefs. *The effect is strongest when the beliefs in question are strongly held and/or important to your sense of identity. The more integral a belief is to your identity, the more your mind sees conflicting evidence as a personal attack and the more likely you are to reject said evidence unexamined. These negative emotions likely play a significant role in the confirmation bias, the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. *
These phenomena are no doubt implicated in the rise of so-called “echo chambers” and (it seems to me) a general decline in civil discourse. The internet and social media allow us to heavily curate our information streams and conversation partners, so we can choose to actively avoid dissenting viewpoints/information (and the negative emotional reactions they foster) and surround ourselves with information that confirms our beliefs.
In this way, some Crossfitters get culty about Crossfit. They (intellectually) high five each other a lot, and gang-reject anyone with an opposing viewpoint. Likewise with brigades of vegan, paleo, yoga, and intermittent fasting fans (among many others).
I am as guilty as anyone of being protective of my fitness opinions (OK, all my opinions). In 2010, I wrote a blog post where the number one piece of nutritional advice was “eat every 3 hours,” and I would have laughed at anyone trying to convince me otherwise. In 2017, I eat twice a day, with a ~16 hour fast daily. I’m as healthy and fit as I’ve ever been.
Over time, I’ve come to realize how limiting — and in many cases dangerous — it is to avoid new information and opinions. It is impossible to be right about everything all the time, and exposure to contradictory evidence, alternate view points, and self-experimentation are primary ways to identify errors and misconceptions. We should seek new information and opinions as a path to clarifying our ideas — reinforcing good ones and replacing bad ones — not fear them.
Of course, while I’m focusing on fitness, this applies to any area of knowledge. In fact, since the the effect is much stronger for ideas and beliefs that are most closely held, it becomes even more isolating and dangerous outside of the fitness area (politics and — shudder — religion get particularly nasty).
So, how do we counteract our negative emotions and end our cycle of information-avoidance? I wish I had a silver bullet, as I am no more immune to these negative gut-reactions than anyone.
Simply being aware of our human tendencies towards belief-protection and confirmation bias certainly helps. We can amplify this awareness by building a mindfulness practice through meditation. With mindfulness, we’re able to observe emotions rather that be controlled by them, to see them as merely phenomena in consciousness, rather than integral parts of our selves. By being mindful of our emotions as they arise, we can make rational decisions about how to interpret them. And maybe then we can change our minds.