Author and academic Robert Wright argues that “mindfulness meditation can save America,” in a recent piece on Wired.
In the article (which is an adapted excerpt from his book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment), he explains that one of the driving forces of our current political divide is the rampant spread of fake news on the internet, and that mindfulness meditation could be an effective, if unexpected, solution.
Wright (currently a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York and prior to that, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton) notes that while some fake news is spread deliberately (like the Russian kind making recent headlines), most of it is spread by people who are retweeting or sharing something without reading it first. The reason? Confirmation bias: the idea that if an article seems like it supports your worldview, that’s often enough to merit a retweet.
Here’s where mindfulness meditation come in. Wright points out that people sometimes think of the practice as warm and fuzzy, but in many ways it’s more “cool and clinical” than that, he writes—a way to get some distance from your feelings before you make a snap decision, like sharing a catchy headline to your Facebook page without reading the article first.
It makes sense: if you think about what you’re sharing first, and don’t let your feelings alone guide your actions, you’re less likely to click that share button without thinking it through.
Confirmation bias, on the other hand, is actually less clinical than you might think. “‘Cognition’ is often thought of as separate from feelings—it’s the kind of rational, logical process a computer can execute,” Wright says. “But in fact feelings often influence cognition.”
The takeaway? Confirmation bias is “driven by feelings from start to finish,” Wright notes. “In that sense, it’s feelings, more than thoughts, that propel false or misleading information through social media.”
We probably can’t rest our hopes and dreams of a more true, more just internet solely on the shoulders of mindfulness meditation. But practicing awareness of our thoughts everyday (Wright recommends 20 to 30 minutes daily) could “reduce the fuel supply for false and slanted information.”