A 12 step program engineered to improve critical thinking and mental immunity.

Advaith Jayaram
5 min readJun 2, 2021

Let’s start by asking ourselves this simple question: can a mind be infected?

Not a brain, but a mind itself?

With a bit of time spent reflecting on this seemingly simple question it will become apparent that the realm of our ideas are constantly bombarded by new ideas. The question that will really twist your noodle is: how do we cognitively decide which ideas are good and which ideas are bad? You might even ask what is a bad idea?

So generally speaking when we reflect on a given idea, we should try to anticipate the effects of believing or accepting it. The likely benefits of believing in an idea matter just as much as the harmful effects of believing in an idea.

This subject is the crux of a research paper carried out by Andy Norman who teaches philosophy at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Andy has also recently published a book called : Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think.

Let us be as straightforward as possible and begin by saying that a bad idea is one that is false, misleading, harmful or otherwise problematic for oneself’s health and in turn their associates’ wellbeing.

Cognitive immunology (CI) is the science of mental immunity. Bodily immune systems protect individuals from infectious microbes while mental immune systems protect the body from infectious ideas or “mind parasites”.

A healthy immune system does what a healthy mental immune system does: ask questions, test ideas, harbour reservations, revise opinions and yes screen out bad ideas.

Cognitive immunologists are studying 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 ideas — can deteriorate rapidly if not paid attention to. Cognitive immunologists are shedding light on why epidemics of irrationality occur and much of the evidence points to the fact that they happen when cultural conditions compromise mental immune systems.

Cultural circumstances such as religion, governments and languages have often resulted in certain ideas which disrupt our mental immunity systems. For example let us take a look at some of these problematic ideas and at the same time understand how we can combat a toxic idea with the weapons of critical questioning and thinking.

  1. “Beliefs are private”. This is simply not true as our beliefs do impact others in a certain way. The not my concern mentality has to go.
  2. “We have a right to our beliefs”. Do we mean a legal right or a moral right? Should we simply do everything we have a right to do? Surely not.
  3. “Values are subjective”. What do we even mean by “subjective”. This form of reasoning has the danger of adopting an “anything goes” mentality.
  4. “Who’s to say?”. This is simply a stupid question. It is fundamentally up to us to shed bad ideas. If not us, who? if not now, when?
  5. “You cant question basic value commitments”. We can’t just ditch the entire idea of questioning basic beliefs without ditching reason itself.
  6. “Questioning core commitments is unkind”. I would say questioning core commitments is actually the most kind thing you can do. In order to find stable sources of meaning we have to be able to enquire together regardless of our basic belief systems.

The above weapons should be able to protect us against the onslaught of bad ideas that we may run into when traversing questionable rabbits holes on the internet and potentially biased media outlets.

However, In order to create an even deeper rewiring in our brain chemistry, we can look to the 12 step program designed by Andy Norman. Each step is designed to produce a certain inversion and collectively these steps have been proved to improve mental immunogenic response.

Step 1)

Play with ideas, test them, ask questions and stress test those ideas with the help of realistic thought experiments.

Step 2)

Understand that minds are not passive knowledge receptacles. They are dynamic ever changing balls of clay.

Step 3)

Get past the self indulgent idea that you’re entitled to your opinions. What you believe affects the well being of others just as much as it affects you. This is the core of empathy.

Step 4)

Distinguish between good faith and bad faith. Be tolerant of quasi religious insight. It’s not just the evidence that matters, the consequences of healthy mental states are just as important. We can have faith that sings to our better angels without summoning our inner demons. An idea backed by evidence has a very good chance of being a good idea. However, make yourself aware of statistical and mathematical assumption biases.

Step 5)

Learn the art of “unlearning” through subtracting ideas. This method is just as important as the art of learning by adding more information to your knowledge base. This natural balance is a very good litmus test of a healthy mental immune system.

Step 6)

New information is like a puzzle piece, you must find where it fits and how it connects to your existing picture of the world. True wisdom requires you to order and clarify your thoughts based of the pre existing patterns in your mental landscape.

Step 7)

Ditch the “Who’s to say” mentality. We are solely responsible for our actions in the world.

Step 8)

Let go of the idea that value judgements cannot be objective. Kindness really is a virtue and cruelty really is vice. Abolishing slavery definitely was a moral exercise that made us more tolerant as a collective band of apes. These truths are as newtonian as the laws of gravitation.

Step 9)

Treat challenges to your beliefs as opportunities rather than threats. Your ideas are not you. A challenge to the idea in no way diminishes your self worth.

Step 10)

Satisfy your need for belonging with a community of inquiry rather than a community of belief.

Step 11)

Reasonable beliefs are those beliefs that can be subjected to endless questioning. The best supported hypotheses are in principle open to unanticipated challenges. The idea that a reason can fully secure a belief is a myth.

Step 12)

Don’t underestimate the value of ideas that have survived scrutiny. Be ready, when needed to reexamine and discard them. Think, then put your values into action.

The idea of CI has been around since the time of Socrates. In essence the methods listed by Andy are a modern adaptation of the age old socratic method. The socratic method is simply a form of truth that is achieved through argumentative questioning among individuals.The field of modern CI is in its infancy but has shown great promise. CI will be an extremely important part of the society we are building for future generations.

Andy envisions a world where trained socratic mediators will de-escelate idealogical conflicts and help avert culture wars. He hopes to groom the next generation of psychologists and philosophical counsellors to practice new forms of cognitive immunotherapy.

These 12 steps will also hopefully transform the existing norms of pedagogy by producing teachers that are trained to promote a dynamic growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset in the youth of any tribe: prehistoric or post modern.