The Awesome Power of Our Divided Brain

The following video from RSA explains how the hemispheric nature of our brains — which is poorly understood by most people — has profoundly affected human behavior, culture, and society. It’s part of a lecture given by renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist, whose full talk can be seen here. I hope you enjoy.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and feedback.

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War and Human Nature

From what I’ve seen, it’s become something of a canard to say that war is intrinsic to human nature. Large scale violence is not only uniquely human, but inseparably so, such that it’s hard to imagine human existence without it.

But a recent study is casting doubt on this widely-accepted and seemingly verified “Deep Roots Theory” of human violence. Scientific American reports on the research published today in Science, Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War.

Of the 21 societies examined by Fry and Soderberg, three had no observed killings of any kind, and 10 had no killings carried out by more than one perpetrator. In only six societies did ethnographers record killings that involved two or more perpetrators and two or more victims. However, a single society, the Tiwi of Australia, accounted for almost all of these group killings.

Some other points of interest: 96 percent of the killers were male. No surprise there. But some readers may be surprised that only two out of 148 killings stemmed from a fight over “resources,” such as a hunting ground, water hole or fruit tree. Nine episodes of lethal aggression involved husbands killing wives; three involved “execution” of an individual in a group by other members of the group; seven involved execution of “outsiders,” such as colonizers or missionaries.

Most of the killings stemmed from what Fry and Soderberg categorize as “miscellaneous personal disputes,” involving jealousy, theft, insults and so on. The most common specific cause of deadly violence—involving either single or multiple perpetrators–was revenge for a previous attack.

These data corroborate a theory of warfare advanced by Margaret Mead in 1940. Noting that some simple foraging societies, such as Australian aborigines, can be warlike, Mead rejected the idea that war was a consequence of civilization. But she also dismissed the notion that war is innate–a “biological necessity,” as she put it – simply by pointing out (as Fry and Soderberg do) that some societies do not engage in intergroup violence.

Mead (again like Fry and Soderberg) found no evidence for what could be called the Malthusian theory of war, which holds that war is the inevitable consequence of competition for resources.

Instead, Mead proposed that war is a cultural “invention”—in modern lingo, a meme, that can arise in any society, from the simplest to the most complex. Once it arises, war often becomes self-perpetuating, with attacks by one group provoking reprisals and pre-emptive attacks by others.

The war meme also transforms societies, militarizes them, in ways that make war more likely. The Tiwi seem to be a society that has embraced war as a way of life. So is the United States of America.

Needless to say, I’m awaiting more research on the subject. But whatever the case is, I think it’s important not to view mass violence in such a fatalistic way. That mentality would only perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which we’re more willing to accept war as an institution — or solution — by virtue of its apparent inevitability. This same approach accounts for many other moral and social evils.

Even if such negative behaviors do have deep roots, that’s hardly an excuse for not trying to mitigate their influence. Most human behavior stems from both nature and nurture, and I’m not aware of any human characteristic that strictly falls under one sphere or the other. Thus, there is always some avenue for improvement, albeit through concerted multidimensional efforts — better material conditions, in combination with quality education (formal and informal), tends to lead to a vast reduction in social ills.

Hormones Influence Ideology

A growing body of research is finding that biological and psychological factors influence the beliefs we otherwise feel are freely decided upon. From social attitudes to religious piety and even voting patterns, it seems that much of worldview is shaped by deterministic patterns we scarcely notice. An article in MoJo by Chris Mooney offers some pretty interesting details. Continue reading

Human Nature and Apathy

Many people, myself included, lament the fact that our species is so apathetic to the widespread suffering that is plentifully around us. However tragic, such indifference is both natural and expected. Our minds were not evolved for absorbing the sheer amount of stimulus that exists in the world.

Only very recently have most humans become regularly exposed to the overwhelming amount of people, events, and information that exists and multiplies all around us. There is a limit to how much we can think about or emotionally react to, and that’s why our immediate suffering — our trivial “first world problems” — is felt far more strongly that the more horrible but distant misery that exists out there. Telling someone that others have it worse is admirable but futile because our brains feel the personal circumstances more substantively and intimately than abstract ones.

It’s for this reason that society will obsess more about individual negative events highlighted in news versus the bigger but nameless and faceless statistics of human poverty. In fact, this is the same reason you’re more likely to donate to an individual suffering person than to broader charitable in general — look up Paul Slovik’s “psychic numbing” phenomenon. In some sense, this may even be a merciful defense mechanism — imagine if all the tremendous suffering in the world was equally impactful. We’d likely succumb to severe depression and misanthropy, or become very withdrawn.

Of course, I’m not saying this excuses callousness or apathy. We can still love and care for one another beyond our closest loved ones. We don’t need to be deeply affected by all the human suffering in the world in order to be troubled by it and seek to alleviate it. Empathy and social responsibility are intrinsic to our species. We must simply adapt to the existence of this new global community and expand our circle of compassion and consideration to be far wider. It’s difficult but not impossible, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts?

Beauty and Brains

I find it interesting that whenever a very attractive person — particularly a woman — demonstrates above-average intelligence or skill, it genuinely surprises most people. Similarly, I’ve seen people marvel at how a “nerdy” person can be athletic or charismatic. Needless to say, those peers who are both attractive and intelligent feel endless frustration at being reflexively labeled based solely on their looks and initial impression.

But this is nothing new, as humans were evolved to make quick judgements based little data — it’s a survival mechanism that has remained, often misapplied, in the modern world. In this instance, we seem to unconsciously associate good looks with stupidity or, at most, average intelligence (admittedly, I think even I have been guilty of this visceral stereotyping).

I’ve read a hypothesis suggesting that this correlation reflects a form of evolutionary compensation:  if one isn’t attractive, they make up for it by making themselves desirable in other ways; similarly, an unskilled or unintelligent person may harness whatever charisma or physical attractiveness they have to influence others or burnish their image. We see this pattern and therefore apply it in how we judge and analyze people.

In any case, it is interesting to note that traditionally (and for the most part to this day), heroic and virtuous characters in various media have almost always been portrayed as good looking, and intelligence is rarely shown to be mutually exclusive with physical attractiveness. Of course, this too likely reflects our evolutionarily-induced preference for well-rounded, attractive people.

Anyway, has anyone else noticed this? Is there a reason for these correlations? What are you thoughts on this?

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The “end of history illusion” describes an almost universal phenomenon among human beings, in which we have a tendency to see the present time as the stopping point for any change of in lives. Once we reach a certain age, we essentially assume that from then on we’ll remain the same. It’s a little difficult to describe given that the “present” tense of time slides as we age. But the New York Times has a great article on it:

When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same, a team of psychologists said Thursday, describing research they conducted of people’s self-perceptions.

They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.” According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

Trying to explain this tendency yields even more interesting considerations. After all, if people acknowledge how much they’ve changed over the years, why can’t they seem to realize that such change will continue?

People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.

Why? Dr. Gilbert and his collaborators, Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, had a few theories, starting with the well-documented tendency of people to overestimate their own wonderfulness.

“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” Dr. Quoidbach said. “The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”

Or maybe the explanation has more to do with mental energy: predicting the future requires more work than simply recalling the past. “People may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself,” the authors wrote in Science.

But it’s false comfort, as this mentality does have its caveats:

The phenomenon does have its downsides, the authors said. For instance, people make decisions in their youth — about getting a tattoo, say, or a choice of spouse — that they sometimes come to regret.

I think it comes down to the nature of the human mind. Our brains are limited in their capacity to look into the future. Our senses and perceptions are shaped by the here and the now, not by a hypothetical future that is far and away – and therefore difficult to grasp, let alone feel concerned about. Try as we might, we’re just too cognitively limited.

Video

Homeless Man Donates Handouts to Fellow Homeless

This exemplary human being has given away over $9,000 he’s collected through panhandling to a fellow homeless mother and child. When many better off people can’t be bothered with giving the less fortunate the time of day, a man who is scarcely getting by still find the means and the love to give to others. This is a very inspiring story. I especially like the news anchors statement towards the end.

Hat tip to my friend Ray for sharing this with me.

Lying, By Sam Harris

The following is an excerpt from a relatively new e-book by neuroscientist Sam Harris titled Lying. It’s an in-depth analysis on the psychology and ethics of deception, and it is by far one of the most interesting things I’ve ever read on the subject.

At least one study suggests that 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive. Another has found that 38 percent of encounters among college students contain lies. However, researchers have discovered that even liars rate their deceptive interactions as less pleasant than truthful ones. This is not terribly surprising: We know that trust is deeply rewarding and that deception and suspicion are two sides of the same coin. Research suggests that all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.

Once one commits to telling the truth, one begins to notice how unusual it is to meet someone who shares this commitment. Honest people are a refuge: You know they mean what they say; you know they will not say one thing to your face and another behind your back; you know they will tell you when they think you have failed—and for this reason their praise cannot be mistaken for mere flattery.

Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.

This is one of many sections that stood out to me, and I highly recommend this for everyone, given the ubiquity of the issue. You can download the e-book, which is less than a hundred pages, for a mere three dollars on Harris’s website.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the implications of this data. Lying is so prevalent, even between confidants, that it makes me wonder whether it’s just a natural part of being human. Every society has a moral prohibition towards dishonesty – indeed, the importance of truthfulness is one of the few universal norms across human society – yet we seem unable to reign in on our own fibbing, let alone keep others in line.

If everyone is a hypocrite (albeit to varying degrees) who has the moral high ground with respect to lying? Heck, who can we even trust to be truthful? Even the most seemingly honest person can turn out to be an expert fibber.

And if lies of all kinds factor into our daily interactions, what good would truth-telling be in the long run? It may help your reputation in some respects, but it may also hinder you in others. After all, many people don’t take the truth as well as they claim they would. Honesty is valued in principle, but I’ve long observed (and been guilty of) the ambivalence people have towards being given a truth they don’t want to hear. Many of us have an almost duplicitous attitude towards honesty – we like it so long as it doesn’t inconvenience us or our own neat perception of the world.

In light of all this, is it possible to imagine a world with less lying? Is it possible to go through life with only a minimal amount of deception? Is lying really all that bad if everyone does it, and if society and human psychology seem tacitly structured around it? I don’t mean to sound cynical or misanthropic – I’m far from it – but I think this is something to think about. Please, share your thoughts.

Our Love of Hate

Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;
Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.
-Lord Byron

I’ve noticed how it’s typically far easier to hate someone than to love them. For most people, it takes a lot to earn their trust and love, but far less to earn their contempt and suspicion. By my own experience at least, it seems far easier to hate someone you once loved, than love someone you once hated.

Love takes work. It takes dedication and commitment. Sadly, hate works the same way for some people: they’re knee-deep in it, and it’s a full-time occupation. But by and large, hate is far more visceral. It doesn’t take as much thought to be prejudiced or intolerant. If only love and acceptance were as easy.

Then again, a lot of people fall in love pretty easily. One wonders if we’d call that real love though. But now that I’m getting off topic and going into semantics, I think I’ll stop here.

Another Child Commits Suicide Due to Bullying: A Reflection

I’m not one to make any exaggerated pronouncements whenever a disturbing trend begins to emerge, but I’m tempted to call this recent spate in bullying-related suicides something of an epidemic.

Suicide rates are already rising in many parts of the world, with particular growth among younger people. Like most social and psychological phenomena, the causes are complex, but the well-documented cases tend to stem from social pressure, especially abusive behavior by peers both in person and, increasingly, online.

Consider this recent heart wrenching tragedy:

Rachel Ehmke, a 13-year-old seventh grader in Mantorville, Minn., died April 29 after hanging herself at her home. The months leading up to the tragedy were a whirlwind of peer abuse instances, her parents say.

Now following Rachel’s Friday funeral that was met with widespread community condolences, Rick and Mary Ehmke are speaking out against the bullying they say their daughter endured at Kasson/Mantorville Middle School and online.

Rachel’s family and friends say the teen fell victim to school bullying last fall when her chewing gum was stuck to her textbooks and the word “slut” was scrawled across her gym locker, the Austin Daily Herald reports. And while she was outgoing, athletic and friendly, the same group of girls reportedly threatened Rachel and kept calling her a “prostitute,” though she had never kissed a boy, according to KMSP.

Two days before Rachel’s death, an anonymous text was sent to other students at the school, KARE reports.

It was pretty explicit. Something to the effect of that Rachel was a slut and to get her to leave the Kasson-Mantorville School, forward this to everyone you know,” parent Chris Flannery told the station.

But after the text was reported to authorities, it was traced to someone who wasn’t a student at the school, according to Minnesota Public Radio. The district’s bullying policy prohibits threats both in person and online, and promises investigations within 24 hours of any reported bullying.

This wasn’t kind of bullying we popularly imagine, the sort of “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls” kind of behavior we expect among unruly, still mentally-developing kids. This was outright abuse, because as far as we can tell at this point, the girl did nothing to merit this kind of treatment. This wasn’t part of a larger feud or a personal misunderstanding. It was a concerted, deliberate, and persistent effort to attack her and her reputation without any apparent motive (not that it would be any more justified if there was one).

A beautiful and unique human being is now lost forever because of the wanton cruelty of others, at least one of whom wasn’t even part of her school. The worst part is that Ehmke had to come to terms with another common and underrated challenge with bullying:

Rachel reportedly pleaded with her father not to mention the bullying to school officials, for fear of worsening the situation. A note that her parents found after her death read, “I’m fine = I wish I could tell you how I really feel,” alongside a picture of a broken heart, according to KMSP.

In almost every one of these circumstances, the victim refrains from taking action on their bullying for fear of reprisals. The most prevalent concern, especially for boys, is the perception of weakness or cowardice – “telling on someone” is a serious infraction in youth social norms.

So the social pressure is two-fold: not only are you repressed for being who you are (or not being who others want you to be), but you must bear with the subsequent suffering in silence, lest you get even more ostracized. This makes the agony of bullying even more unbearable, and the mental and emotional strain is what ultimately leads some to death.

Now this is where many people will make the inevitable claim that kids like these are too sensitive or even cowardly. In fact, the upward trend in bullying-caused suicides is being seen as a reflection of how weak-minded and spineless our younger generations are. The problem isn’t the cruelty of others, which has always existed, but the fact that kids don’t know how to take it anymore, due to softer parents, an overly sensitive culture, and other societal factors.

While it’s true that bullying has always been around, we need to keep in mind that the psychological and social context has changed considerably. We live in a world where personal image is everything, and people have all sorts of venues in which they can make themselves known – and from which they can be judged, attacked, and discriminated against.

In a society that places ever more importance on how you’re perceived, and that has made social interaction of some kind ubiquitous and nearly unavoidable (even if it is electronic), the kind of merciless assaults on your self-worth that Rachel endured can literally kill you. This is especially true of young people whose values and worldviews are still underdeveloped, and where peer pressure is even more pronounced and influential.

Furthermore, we need to consider that there is increasing evidence that certain preexisting biological and neurological factors increase one’s likelihood to end their lives (or to endure other pre-suicidal mental illnesses). People with lower levels of serotonin in the brain, for example, have a much higher chance of killing themselves. When someone points out how plenty of people get bullied, yet only a few kill themselves, it’s not evidence that those few were especially sensitive; it could very well be that they happened to have had the innate biological and psychological factors that bullying ended up being triggering.

At any rate, it’s counterproductive and callous to write off the psychological anguish of people as a mere matter of personal weakness. If anything, such assumptions only strengthen the motivations of bullies, who often base their actions on this social-Darwinist notion of survival of the fittest. They may even dismiss any responsibility they had for their victim’s death by claiming they were just being cowardly anyway.

At any rate, bullying is clearly a problem of some kind, even if it weren’t driving people into suicide.

Dodge County authorities plan to meet this week to discuss possible criminal charges, the Star Tribune reports. But Rick Ehmke says the family doesn’t plan to press charges against those who bullied his daughter.

“They’re kids. They made some horrible decisions. If these kids would’ve known this would happen I’m pretty sure they never, ever would have done what they did,” Rick Ehmke told Minnesota Public Radio. “Sadly enough, even those kids that know who they are will carry this bag their whole life. That’s a sad thing too, it really is.”

I’d like to think they’d have that much remorse, but who knows anymore. As I stated before, many bullies just see it as survival of the fittest: people like Rachel were too weak to take it, so they had what was coming to them.

He also notes that the school should have taken heavier measures against the bullies when the taunting was first reported in the fall, adding that technology like phones and social media may have worsened an already bad situation by allowing the bully to essentially follow students home.

Words hurt. Word can kill,” mother Mary Ehmke told KARE.

Community members have planned a prayer vigil and walk in Rachel’s memory for 2 p.m. May 19 at Mill Pond in Austin, Minn. The walk aims to show support for the Ehmke family and raise awareness for teen suicide and bullying.

The U.S. Department of Education has identified 16 “key components” in state bullying legislation, including a statement of scope, listing of enumerated groups, process of district policy review, definitions and reporting guidelines. Minnesota ranks last in the country with its state bullying law only covering two of the 16 components, according to an Education Department analysis of state bullying laws released in December. Nebraska ranks second-to-last by covering four of the 16 components.

Statement of scope, one of the most common components of state bullying laws, establishes where legislation applies and what conditions must exist for schools to have authority over student conduct.

According to the Education Department report, Minnesota is one of just three states — alongside Wisconsin and Arizona — that prohibits bullying but doesn’t define that behavior. The state also doesn’t provide for its districts a model bullying policy, and at a mere 37 words, its anti-bullying law is the shortest one in the country:

Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.

So what kind of problem is bullying, and what sort of solutions should be implementing? Is it something that requires legal and political action, as discussed above? Or is it more of a sociocultural problem, as I’m more inclined to believe? Maybe it’s a bit of both?

It’s important to note that many cases of bullying hardly black-and-white: polls have shown that as many kids identify as being both victims and perpetrators of bullying as being just one or the other. The problem seems to be that kids in general are just cruel to each other, period, and that some unfortunate number of them is being pushed to the edge due to preexisting psychological issues – which raises another area of action, namely improving our understanding of mental illness and our ability to both discuss it frankly and treat it.

The sad fact, as with most social issues, is that we can’t save everyone. There will always be immorality, and thus there will always be victims of it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to lessen the toll. The question is how we should, or even could, go about doing it.

I personally think that a lot of this comes down to improving the ethics, behavior, and psychological wellbeing of children. We should make the teaching of these values mandatory at every grade level, and have it be far more immersive and intensive. We should expand the counseling services of our schools, which are often the first to get cut or reduced. I’m not saying any of this will end bullying, but it may certainly help. Plus, it’s important to learn these sorts of things in general, not just to prevent bullying.

Of course this is only the start: a lot of this comes down to parenting, as well as to influence of society as a whole. Look at the political and public rhetoric out there, and you see a lot of examples of what we could otherwise call bullying: people demonizing each other, being arrogant, and refusing to hear one another out. We value toughness, hyper-individualism, consumerism, and other behaviors that may encourage a more egoistic and selfish worldview. In many ways, bullying is just a manifestation of the same sort of obsession with competition and success that pervades every segment of society: asserting your social superiority, proving to others you’re the toughest and baddest person around, etc. Might any of this play a role?

These are just my opinions though, and I could be dead wrong. Anyone care to comment or set me straight?