Wednesday, September 18, 2013


From AlterNet:

The Most Depressing Discovery About the Brain, Ever

In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.  It turns out that in the public realm, a lack of information isn’t the real problem.  The hurdle is how our minds work, no matter how smart we think we are.  We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

More here.

This is not entirely new.  I've been reading about findings in this area, how logic is more something we have to try to do, and keep trying to do, and even then not particularly well, than something we just do naturally, for at least four or five years now.  And really, it's pretty amazing when you get down to it.  I mean, okay, that we are much more passionate than we are rational is kind of already intuitively understood.  But our entire concept of how we approach governance and public life is founded on the assumption that our best ideas are going to come from rational discussion.  We are children of the Enlightenment, after all.  This is how our founding fathers constructed the United States of America.  They came in with a bunch of ideas, debated each other, and came up with even better ideas.  From this process came our constitutional system, which essentially institutionalizes for our nation that very same process.  Studies like the one in the linked article, however, strongly indicate that we human beings are simply not well suited, in terms of biology, for doing well with this process.

Still, though, I think we've done well enough with it over the decades.  That is, until fairly recently.

For most of the history of the republic, we have existed in what Chris Hedges calls "print based culture."  That is, the vast majority of information pertaining to the great issues facing our nation has come to us via the written word, newspapers, books, magazines.  So most Americans who ever lived considered observations, analyses, and facts about their country by reading about them.  Contrast that with the what has effectively replaced "print based culture."  Hedges describes the rise of mass communications as a steady movement toward "image based culture."  That is, we Americans now get most of our information in terms of pictures and video.

Now, think about that for a moment or two.  When we read, it is necessarily a contemplative process, slow and deliberate, one that absolutely requires thought and rationality.  But when we see images, it's quick, and it rouses our hearts far more intensely than it stimulates our intellectual processes.  That is, "image based culture," whether by intention or not, is perfect for upending the rational thought process that reading requires.  Indeed, images require NO rational thought process.  You see, and then you react.  I mean, sure, if you try really hard, you can think about it, but it's not required in the way it is with reading.  Most people tend to take the path of least resistance with this, including myself.  And these days we are drowning in all kinds of images.

In short, our biological proclivity toward irrationality is ramped into the stratosphere by the image based culture in which we currently live.  Unless we find a way to deal with this, it may very well turn out that we are no longer capable of practicing democracy in America.  And that scares the shit out of me.