Problems with Evaluating: (Part 2) Affective Science & Information Literacy by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

I have long been interested in the idea of why we believe what we believe. I have been interested in this relating to information literacy instruction. How do we evaluate sources and how do we make decisions about what counts as truth? Recently, I have been doing some reading in psychology and neuroanatomy focusing on the complex ways that the brain utilizes outside inputs to make decisions. This research highlights some disconnects and points where our practice, as instructional librarians, may be falling short with these new developments in the literature.

Over the history of the 20th century the emotions and affective reactions were largely ignored by psychology. In the last two decades, researchers have presented a broader understanding of the fact that emotion plays an underlying role in all kinds of decision-making. Our moods and emotions color all of our interactions with the world whether we realize it or not. It wasn’t that long ago when most cognitive researchers believed that each region of the brain performed a specific function, and it was generally held that the limbic system dealt with emotion/affective reactions and the frontal lobes dealt with cognition and analytic thinking. Recent research has shown that the picture is much much more complex. The picture that is emerging is one where personality, decision-making, emotions, etc result from combinations of activity within the brain. Importantly, analytic activities (such as interpreting information) activate a whole range of brain regions especially those more associated with affect.

swansonphotoI am concerned that many librarians (myself included at times) still hold the view that our brains are like recording machines capturing all that happens around us. The learning process is then equated to information processing as if we are walking computers. Students simply absorb data, compute this data, and arrive at the logical conclusions. Naturally, we know that this view does not represent reality. In the abstract, we know that different people will reach different conclusions. But, in practice, I wonder if we think that given the same facts, all of us would achieve the same answer? I often hear academics speak with trepidation about the online, political echo chamber. We rant about anti-scientific views that are shared across social media.. What underlies these rants and fears? I often suspect that it is the assumption that the computational machines that we teach do not agree with us.

Increasingly, brain research is showing us that not only are we not computational machines, but we are more life belief machines. Our beliefs are our shorthand to understanding the world. Our understandings about how the world works and that emerge within specific situations greatly influence decision-making. These beliefs help us filter what we see help us recognize what is important and help us know how to handle particular situations. Clearly, psychologists have been building the picture of the believing brain for many years, but the revelations resulting from brain imaging are starting to reveal the mechanisms at work.

This quote from The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions by Michael Shermer is telling concerning right and wrong:

“In fact, research now overwhelmingly demonstrates that most of our moral decisions are grounded in automatic moral feelings rather than deliberatively rational calculations. We do not reason our way to a moral decision by carefully weighing the evidence for and against; instead, we make intuitive leaps to moral decisions and then rationalize the snap decision after the fact with rational reasons. Our moral intuition – reflected in such conservative-liberal stereotypes- are more emotional than rational. As with most of our beliefs about most things in life, our moral beliefs come first; the rationalization of those moral beliefs comes second.”

The jump from neuroanatomically-based brain research to a one-shot, information literacy classroom may feel like a quantum leap, but I have always felt that teaching students about information is at the heart of what instructional librarians do. If information literacy is truly a vital skill for lifelong learning, then it is upon us to make these leaps and recognize the implications for our practice and for our learners.

If you are curious about some of the books at the top of my reading list, I would suggest

  • Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman
  • Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
  • The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley

Feel free to add additional titles in the comments below.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

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