Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Human Brutality, Part II

For almost all of human history, right up until the 1990s, motivation—why we do what we do—was a matter for philosophy. Reason was the only tool available for trying to make sense of human behavior.

Do we always act in accordance with what we perceive to be best for ourselves (“maximizing utility” in the words of the theorists)? Or are we sometimes moved by sheer, objective altruism to do what’s best for others? Are we usually aware of why we do things, or are we motivated by deep, unconscious desires? Are some people born evil, or is there some good even in people who commit the most heinous acts? These and many others are questions that thinkers have pondered for millennia.

And now, to the dismay of those who like things neat and tidy, it turns out the answer to most of these kinds of questions is, “All of the above.”

New knowledge of biochemistry and the nervous system is beginning to unravel the secrets of the human brain, which turns out to be a far more sensitive, adaptable, and complex organ than anyone had previously imagined. As we absorb data through our senses, the brain is not only processing and making sense of it but also responding to what we perceive. We now know that the brain physically changes throughout our lifetime in accordance with our habits of thought and what we experience (a quality neuroscientists call “plasticity”).

Thus, when people lose one of their senses—becoming blind, for example, through illness or injury—the area of the brain once devoted to processing that sensory input is taken over by brain cells devoted to other functions. The area devoted to hearing, for example, may expand into the area once devoted to sight. So when a blind person develops more acute hearing, it’s not just a matter of the person’s attention having shifted from one type of stimuli to another; rather, their brain has changed to better respond to new circumstances.

Moreover, different parts of the brain can be used to process the same information in different ways. Take language processing, for example: studies with functional MRIs (fMRIs) show that different parts of the brain are active depending upon whether the subject is reading, listening to, or writing the same text. This helps explain why people who stutter when they speak can usually sing the same words with perfect fluency—different parts of the brain are in charge of speaking and singing.

Imaging techniques like fMRIs show us that our attention is like a controller at a switch board: whenever we shift our attention from one thing to another, energy instantly shifts to a different part of the brain. You’re driving down the street, listening to music and thinking pleasant thoughts: you’re brain’s behaving one way. Someone cuts you off and almost causes an accident: the world changes in an instant, and your thoughts, feelings and actions are entirely different than they might have been otherwise.

The limbic system is the “emotional” part of the brain; most rational thought and planning ahead occurs in the frontal cortex. When we choose to think rationally (a choice many people aren’t’ even aware they can make), we’re really deciding to process our experience through the frontal cortex—which can be hard work—rather than turning it over to the more automatic and impulsive “emotional” part of the brain.

We often make the shift unconsciously from thinking with one part of our brain to thinking with another. When something makes us uncomfortable, for example, we may literally “turn off” one part of our brain and shift to another. That’s why some people are better than others at staying cool in a crisis: they’re more skilled at turning off the part of their brain that would react with panic or anxiety and shifting to the part that allows them to just do what needs to be done.

Some things are best handled by the limbic system; if a bear is after you, there’s no time to think. It’s best to listen to your limbic system if it tells your body to run!

Other things—including most matters of public policy—are best handled by the frontal cortex.

In a perfect world, we’d all know about how our brain works and whether we’re reacting to something emotionally or intellectually. But new knowledge can take generations to become widely understood within a culture. So as things stand now, it’s mostly scientists and geeks interested in brain science who are aware of how the functioning of the brain affects decision making.

Consequently, the public can be gullible, and people can be easily manipulated. In recent years (and especially in recent months), we’ve seen this gullibility used to advantage by people who—instinctively, if not scientifically—know more about human behavior than the average person.

If you want people to think and feel a certain way, there are basically two ways to do it: by emotional manipulation or by persuasion—in other words, by targeting either the emotional or the rational part of their brains.

Regular readers of this blog know where I’m going with this. The great divide in terms of political discourse in this country right now is between reason and emotion. There’s a struggle going on between those who want people to think and those who want them simply to react. Among elected officials, there are those who do the hard intellectual work of analyzing situations and solving problems and those who simply emote. There are those who want to whip their constituents into a frenzy of emotional anger and those who want them to understand some of the complexities of the problems that face us all, in this country and on this planet.

Angry people are easy to manipulate. They form mobs and follow the person with the loudest voice or the cockiest attitude. However, they’re also unpredictable and—after a certain point—notoriously hard to control. They follow their passions, and sometimes they destroy things—even the things and people they love the most.

Those who are deliberately using fear tactics, incendiary language, and misleading arguments to “stir up their base” do so at their peril—and ours. The recent arousal of the American vigilante movement—largely fueled by irresponsible political rhetoric from the extreme right—is a much more real and present threat to this country than anything Osama bin Laden may try to dream up.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Human Brutality

One of my childhood memories involves the day my mild-mannered little Polish grandmother lost her temper. Big time.

After my grandfather’s death, Grandma had moved in with my mother and me and rented her home to a German woman who had a daughter my age. Every month, Grandma made a practice of taking me with her when she went to pick up the rent. The two women would sit in the kitchen nursing a pot of tea while we children played.

On this memorable occasion, the other child and I suddenly heard a lot of noise coming from the kitchen. We ran to the doorway and found both women on their feet, shouting at one another in a mélange of languages. Although the German woman towered over my grandmother, she looked frightened—and not without reason. When Grandma was mad, she had a tendency to take a broom to the object of her wrath, and it’s a good thing she didn’t know where her tenant kept the brooms.

Grandma had the last word in this bitter exchange: “Out!” Needless to say, that was the last I saw of the German woman or her daughter.

The woman’s transgression? She had said to my grandmother, “Hitler was a good man.” It was the wrong thing to say to an old woman who, although born in America, had family abroad who had disappeared during the Holocaust.

This incident may have been part of the reason why, when I was getting a degree in counseling many years later, I chose to write my thesis on the experiments of psychologist Stanley Milgram. I wondered, as Milgram had, how it was that in the Germany of the mid-1900s, ordinary, everyday people could be turned into monsters who not only sanctioned persecution, torture, and murder but even participated in them. Was there something wrong with the German character—or was it the human character?

In America in the 1960s, Milgram conducted a series of experiments in which subjects—ordinary people recruited off the street—were asked to participate in research about "learning.” Each subject was paired with a person whom they believed to be another volunteer but who was, in fact, an actor. The actor was strapped into a chair and connected to electrodes, then asked a series of questions. Whenever he answered incorrectly, the real subject was told by the white-coated director to deliver electrical “shocks” of increasing intensity.

As the experiments continued, the “learner” began asking, then pleading for release. Mild complaints escalated to anguished cries and eventually silence that suggested that the learner might be seriously injured or dead. Nonetheless, almost all the subjects continued—despite their own emotional anguish and confusion—to deliver the phony shocks on command.

The book in which Milgram wrote about the “shocking” results of his research (pardon the pun) was called Obedience to Authority. He assumed that the presence of the researcher—wearing a white coat and perceived as being a doctor—influenced the subjects’ decisions. As in Nazi Germany, he reasoned, subjects were able to shrug off their own responsibility for abhorrent actions because they were “just following orders” from someone believed to be in a position of authority.

This is what’s so troubling about very similar experiments recently conducted in France on national television: the context was completely different. A game show host—neither a military leader nor a perceived “expert” on anything—was the one giving the orders. Nevertheless, in that context (as in Milgram’s experiments), about 80% of the participants displayed their willingness to torture and even kill a fellow human being.

What does all this tell us about people—even about ourselves?

First, it suggests that even the “nicest” people may—given the right circumstances—be capable of insensitivity, cruelty, and even murder. Secondly, we tend to behave very differently depending on the context in which we find ourselves. And finally, we are social creatures who tend to slip quickly and comfortably into almost any kind of hierarchy: when we perceive that someone’s in charge, we have a tendency to follow along and believe pretty much anything that person says.

Tomorrow: some implications for America about these very human tendencies given the current political landscape.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Happy 91st Brithday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

from his poem "Constantly Risking Absurdity":

the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
. . . the super realist
who must perforce perceive
taut truth

What a Difference a Year Makes

It was just last spring that America began hearing about the allegedly "grass-roots" Tea Party movement, which seemed like a joke at the time. Here’s what I posted in April 2009:

“Say what you will, this idea is such a pleasant diversion from screaming and hate mongering that I think we ought to encourage it and play along. . . . I propose that we Democrats reciprocate by giving conservative members of Congress a good “grounding” (as in the expression, “grounded in reality”). We could send coffee grounds to some of those who really need to wake up and smell the coffee!”

Now that we've witnessed ignorant and angry adherents of the Tea Party movement shouting racial and homophobic epithets at their duly elected representatives—not to mention deliberately disrupting the political process and threatening violence—it's not so funny anymore.

The increasing polarization of America—as evidenced by the sometimes ludicrous lies and shenanigans the Republicans used to try to defeat health reform—is no longer humorous. The rational among us seem to be at a loss as to how to stop it. Thus, I was intrigued by some constructive, down-to-earth solutions offered by Thomas L. Friedman in yesterday’s op-ed. Read it here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Local Facts

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
—Daniel Moynihan

It takes years to develop a textbook. Five million is a lot of consumers. There are five million school children in Texas. As Texas goes, then, so goes the country—at least in terms of textbook adoption.

In her 2004 book The Language Police, Diane Ravich documented in frightening detail how political pressure groups have learned to take over local and state-level school boards so as to dictate what children learn. This year in Texas, that means extreme right-wing conservatives—ten of whom have infiltrated the 15-member state school board—are deciding what children throughout the nation will learn.

In with Jefferson Davis, out with Thomas Jefferson (who had the audacity to pen the phrase “separation of church and state”). In with Phyllis Schlafly, out with Ted Kennedy. In with creationism and the NRA, out with evolution and animal rights. Ronald Reagan saved the world, and ol’ Joe McCarthy wasn’t such a bad guy, after all.

According to the pictures, Americans are almost universally white, and a woman belongs in the kitchen (and not with a briefcase in her hand).

The problem isn’t so much that the right wing is propagandizing school books. (In fact California, the other state with the largest student population, has a tendency to skew some publishers’ textbooks to the left.) The problem is that education shouldn’t be about politics, and facts shouldn’t be subject to vote.

As the great ship of state now turns to the problem of reforming educational reform, perhaps it’s time to have a serious discussion about national curriculum standards. It’s not healthy when a handful of people with no expertise in a subject area decide how that subject will be taught to the nation’s children.

It’s time we got over the notion that “all politics are local.” Truth is not.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Duties of a Patriot

The un-American, un-patriotic Michelle Bachmann is at it again—encouraging her misguided admirers to ignore their civic responsibility to pay their rightful share of the costs of living in a free and affluent society. And the reliably inane and insane Glenn Beck is encouraging Americans to break the law by ignoring their legal duty to fill out a census form.

Once every ten years, we Americans have two opportunities in April to act responsibly and do a little something to earn the privilege of living in this great nation: we can stand up and be counted, and we can pay our fair share. I, for one, will do both with pride.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

John Edwards and The Enquirer

Admittedly, most of what I know about the tabloids is what I absorb from mindlessly staring at their covers while waiting in line at the supermarket. On rare occasions, I’ve bought The Enquirer to read articles of particular interest, and despite the rag’s rather negative reputation, I’ve found those articles to be fair and factual. I don’t know about other tabloids—the ones with the half-alien babies or alligator people on the covers—but it seems to me that The Enquirer may have its place in society. No doubt it serves to keep certain celebrities aware of their image and influence, and—like a tactless, too-blunt guest at a cocktail party—it often comes right out and says what others are thinking.

The story of how The Enquirer punctured the impeccable image that John Edwards had so long enjoyed ($400 haircuts not withstanding) reads like a good spy novel. And given the man’s now well-understood narcissism and penchant for dishonesty, it must be said that America dodged a bullet by not electing him to even higher office than Senator from North Carolina. It can be argued that in public figures who have the potential to exert enormous influence, deep defects of character are the people’s business.

But a Pulitzer Prize? What does this nomination suggest for media standards? Will this “awkward embrace from traditional journalism” (as the New York Times called it), legitimize mean-spirited, sensational gossip? Or will it contribute to narrowing the gap between truth and fiction when it comes to the actions and motivations of people who symbolize—for good or for ill—our cultural standards?

I have no answers to these questions. I’m only asking.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Civil Disagreement

Since last week’s tragedy in Orlando, experts and the general public have been weighing in on two sides of the question of captivity of marine mammals—especially Orcas, like the 12,000-lb. behemoth that killed his trainer.

Animal rights advocates point out that for an Orca, life as an exhibit in a tank, regardless of how large a tank, would be like life in a bathtub for a human being. Even well fed and entertained, the person in a tub couldn’t help but get cramped, bored, and more than a little neurotic. Other critics of Sea World-style extravaganzas have focused on the inherent dangers of working with animals like Tillicum, the killer whale at the center of the controversy.

On the other side of the issue, marine scientists point out that studying captive animals is sometimes the only way humans have of learning about them. Conservationists argue that people have to come into close contact with animals to care about them—and on a shrinking planet, public concern is the only defense many creatures have against extinction.

This is a high-stakes debate, with enormous moral—not to mention financial—implications. Yet for the most part, it’s been civil. While there are undoubtedly fringe elements, expressing rage and maybe even advocating violence, the media has wisely framed the discussion so that there are no real villains in the picture—mostly just well-intentioned folks with conflicting viewpoints. The points of disagreement have been moral and philosophical differences, not hysterical accusations and personal attacks.

Such an approach to politics would go a long way toward establishing a climate of civility in Washington—not to mention maybe clearing the way for getting a few things done.

As spectators, we all share some of the moral responsibility for the issues at the root of these and other public debates. By buying tickets (or not), visitors to Sea World and other marine parks help determine the viability of keeping and displaying captive animals. Similarly, those who take the bait (or not) when political extremists throw out what is being increasingly referred to as “red meat” are casting a moral ballot—one that has implications for all of us.