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.