Cognitive Anchors: What Weighs You Down?

So Howard Hughes has his own Mrs. Fields cookies. I'm impressed!
So Howard Hughes has his own Mrs. Fields cookies!

“Cognitive Anchors” are facts we know to be true — so that all incoming information must wrap around these facts. What are your Cognitive Anchors?

Last night I went to a “Dialogue of Discovery” at Janelia Farm, a research campus funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute, to hear a practitioner of “curiosity-driven science.” (And isn’t that a great phrase?)

Joseph DeRisi spoke: “Unraveling Infectious Disease Mysteries Through Genomics.”?As a speaker he did everything right: great visuals, interesting stories, and a touch of humor, all to make his very complex science approachable for the public. This link is to a related Ted Talk.

In the first portion of his talk, Dr. DeRisi explained how genome sequencing works, with lots of visuals. Basically, DNA is shattered, then the strands are manipulated and dyed with markers (A, C, G, T) so that a computer can match together the tiny pieces into long strands. We’re talking millions of pieces of DNA, which can now be done incredibly quickly — within 2 or 3 days. The progress in this field in the decade since the human genome was mapped is absolutely stunning. (The resulting drop in cost in this field is 50,000 fold!)

The second portion of his talk revolved around a case study of a 14 year old boy who was immune-compromised, and who became mysteriously and seriously ill. Dr. DeRisi told this story in a captivating way so that we never forgot the boy who was at the center of it, or how high the stakes were. Eventually this case was solved by the unusual step of sequencing his DNA, which revealed the problem: leptospirosis. It was an unexpected result, so that even though the clues were there (onset of conjunctivitis, progression to meningitis), this infection was never suspected. The doctors were focused on the boy’s immune suppression and therefore pursued treatment with steroids.

In this case, the belief in immunosuppression was a Cognitive Anchor. Wrapping all knowledge around that fact kept the doctors from correctly interpreting other facts as they appeared. On top of that, the disease waxed and waned so that the steroid treatment did sometimes appear to have efficacy. And why would someone expect a statistically unusual virus to be the culprit, rather than a known fact?

We have Cognitive Anchors in all areas of life, and while anchors can be terribly useful, they can also weigh us down.

As a pastor, it occurs to me that churches may actually be in the business of providing Cognitive Anchors for people. After all, isn’t doctrine/belief a way of giving someone an anchor or safe harbor when the sea of life is tumultuous? But note how quickly sound doctrine devolves into cliche.

When God closes a door He opens a window.

This saying is not biblical, and certainly is not nuanced enough to qualify as good theology. But this phrase (and similar others) is muttered in hospital waiting rooms or posted to Facebook walls. Like an anchor. Easy to hold onto. Seemingly solid. But terribly over-simplified.

So that’s one type of Cognitive Anchor that weighs us down in church.

As institutions, there are others. For instance, we church professionals think we know what people want/need/expect from church. Correspondingly, we act as if we know why people stay away — usually some combination of music style/ preaching quality/ program availability/ parking.

Accordingly, we try to up our “appeal” by changing the music, hiring a better preacher, or hosting Bible studies over beer in a restaurant with lots of parking.

But what if our Cognitive Anchors aren’t the essential fact? What if a virus from an outside source has invaded and messed with the body? (I’m extending the disease metaphor because the church is the Body of Christ.)

Off the top of my head, here are some examples of “outside” contamination:

~ the Catholic sexual abuse scandals (which affect Protestants also)

~ global wars tinged with a religious/faith component (which undermine the idea that belief is a positive force)

~ the evangelical church’s fixation on women’s bodies and the notion of sexual purity (which intersects unhelpfully with politics here in the U.S.)

~ a culture war over same-sex marriage (which makes the church seem irrelevant and, excuse me, is a concept which Jesus did not address)

~ and the leadership mess of the moment — currently Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll but maybe next the Osteens (charismatic leadership always generates crises)

This is not an exhaustive list! But all of the above can affect the health of the Body of Christ.

Last night’s lecture was mentally stimulating. It made me back up and ask myself to name my Cognitive Anchors. What are yours?


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