Cognitive immunology (CI) is the science of mental immunity. It’s a field of research that goes back to the 1960s. The premise—now well-validated—is that our minds have immune systems, just as our bodies do. But where bodily immune systems protect us from infectious microbes, mental immune systems protect us from infectious ideas.
Cognitive immunologists study how mental immune systems work. They seek to understand common mental immune disorders and reveal the root causes of mental immune collapse. (A mind’s capacity to distinguish fact from fiction—and good ideas from bad—can sometimes deteriorate rapidly.) Cognitive immunologists are showing that epidemics of irrationality occur when cultural conditions compromise mental immune systems.
But this isn't a terminal diagnosis. There are evidence-based interventions designed to boost mental immune performance. These interventions go well beyond simply teaching critical thinking; citizens of a highly networked society need deep immunity—strong resistance to misinformation, divisive ideologies, and morally disorienting ideas. A systematic approach to building mental immunity will light the way to a clear-headed and sustainable future.
In short, excellent. Our hope is that the principles of CI can transform our society into one that is more reasonable, more just, more beneficial for all. But cognitive immunology is still in its infancy, and we’re only scratching the surface of what it can do. In the 1700s, no one could foresee how profoundly immunology would transform the human condition. But since then, we’ve learned how many diseases work and developed astonishingly consequential remedies. Immunology has eradicated countless sources of misery and saved literally billions of human lives. Could cognitive immunology be similarly transformative? We think so.
Mental immunity is a mind’s resistance to bad ideas. In other words, a skilled thinker who is resistant to manipulative propaganda has strong immunity to that propaganda. Her susceptibility to that propaganda is low. (Susceptibility is the inverse of immunity.) On the other hand, a small child might be prone to believe in the Tooth Fairy; her susceptibility to tooth-fairy belief is high, and her immunity low.
Minds conduct operations to spot and remove bad ideas. (“Bad” here means false, misleading, irresponsible, harmful, or otherwise problematic.) These might manifest, for example, as doubts or clarifying questions. The infrastructure that supports these operations is the mind’s immune system. In two important ways, mental immunity is a distributed system. First, multiple parts of the brain participate in the assessment of ideas—the frontal and temporal lobes, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. Second, the relatively new concept of mental immune function cuts across more traditional categories like critical thinking, curiosity, mindset, and fair-mindedness.
If you mean "Are mental immune systems a discrete chunk of matter devoted solely to sifting ideas?” then no. By this standard, though, even the body’s immune system wouldn’t count as real since the body’s immune system is distributed, not discrete. As long as we define “mental immune system” by its function—filtering ideas—we can be confident that mental immune systems really do exist. Why? Because such filtering really does happen, and something—a mental immune system—does the filtering!
Cultures also have an infrastructure for filtering ideas. Fact-checkers, for example, work to stop the spread of misinformation. A free press with investigative journalists can do a lot to keep politicians honest. The subculture of science has evidential norms and expectations of peer review, and these serve to make scientists less prone to false beliefs. Other subcultures, however, have little infrastructure for slowing the spread of bad information. Some subcultures—think of those spurred by online propaganda—actively subvert mental immunity. Cognitive immunologists describe subcultures that normalize irresponsible talk as “immune compromised.”
Mental immune disorders arise from several different places:
Mental immune systems malfunction in two basic ways:
Mental immune health involves a balancing act: you must be critical enough to screen out bad ideas, but if you’re too critical, you screen out good ones, too. A healthy mental immune system sits in a “Goldilocks zone” between overcritical and undercritical.
This is exactly like bodily immune health. When a body's immune system is sluggish or underactive, scientists describe it as “immune suppressed” or “immune compromised.” When an immune system becomes overactive or attacks the body’s own tissues, scientists call that an “autoimmune” disorder. The ideal lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes. Mental autoimmune disorders happen. For example, a cult leader can hot-wire his followers’ mental immune systems, rendering them prone to attack many true and useful commonsense beliefs with relentless and fervid doubts.
For all practical purposes, yes. In fact, they’re everywhere. For most of human history, they’ve gone by names like “bad idea” and “falsehood.” Bad ideas have all the properties of mind-parasites:
Cognitive immunology is still an emerging science, but its practitioners are informed by decades of relevant research. Explore the extant and ongoing research behind this science.
Cognitive immunology is an eminently useful science, and it is already being applied to addressing the cultural problems of disinformation and science denialism. Learn how applied CI can help promote wisdom, justice, and a meaningful existence for all people.
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