The Misshapen Mind

The human mind, we like to think, is an embodiment of perfection. For those with a religious inclination, our ability to think through issues logically, to construct narratives about our surroundings, and to recall events that happened decades earlier is proof positive of a divine hand at work. For the nonreligious, the mind is a secular miracle, an indication that, left to its own devices, evolution produces something akin to a Panglossian vision of the best outcomes in the best of all possible worlds.

Two new books beg to differ. The first, New York University psychologist Gary Marcus' Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin, April 2008) sets out to show the many ways in which the human mind is an evolutionary hodge-podge, a series of good-enough solutions to the problem of understanding and responding to our environment. The second is The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't -- and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger (Dutton, June 2008), by the Canadian journalist Daniel Gardner.

I recommend you read them as a package. While both deal with complex psychological theories -- how memories can be triggered and manipulated and how our understanding of events is influenced by what other people think, by our existing preconceptions, and even by seemingly random factors such as the mentioning of a particular number before we're asked to provide the answer to a question -- Marcus clearly understands the psychological theories better. As a trained scientist, he's also somewhat more fluent in his explanations of why our brains are so easily influenced by irrational considerations.

A kluge, Marcus tells us, is an improvised engineering response to a problem. It is the product of a tinkerer playing around with odds and ends and creating a functional machine. That, he writes, is what the brain and its package of emotional, intellectual, and logical tools is. It is a series of good but imperfect methods for processing and acting on information, developed over hundreds of millions of years.

Evolution, in other words, produces things that work. That, Marcus argues, is the case with the brain, with how we store memories and how we respond to information. Were our memory systems better designed, they'd store and retrieve memories in the same way computers do. Instead, we rely on context to access snapshots from the past. Moving beyond memory, the logical aspect of higher thought is simply the icing on the cake, Marcus explains -- something that has evolved in an evolutionary microsecond and set up residence in the brain's frontal lobes. The older parts of the brain, call them our reptilian legacy, had much longer to mature. As a result, in many situations, especially when quick responses are demanded, they simply overwhelm our rational side, stampeding us into actions that don't really stand up to serious analysis.

Thus, we see an act of violence in the media (whether it be a single person being kidnapped and murdered, as with the 1993 celebrated Polly Klaas case in California, or mass slaughter, as with September 11), and we respond with a potpourri of inchoate fear, panic, and rage. We feel that the certainties governing our lives have been shattered. Rarely do we successfully step back and analyze the likelihood or unlikelihood of such an event impacting us.

For both Marcus and Gardner, the result is the emergence of an increasingly irrational political system, a sort of Truman Show in which reality is continually altered by an omnipresent media superstructure.

Marcus is particularly good at detailing the ways in which evolution didn't quite hit perfection when it comes to human thought processes. Whether it be in politics, in love, or in the imbibing of alcohol or narcotics, humans tend to look for short-term gratification even when, intellectually, they know their long-term interests might lie elsewhere. We're also easily influenced by what we see around us; we are willing to pay more for snacks, for example, immediately after being shown a picture of a happy face. We're more likely to cooperate with others shortly after hearing a news report about a do-gooder helping his neighbor.

Gardner, on the other hand, produces a powerful -- if overlong -- account of the social and political implications of our brains being kluges. If it's true that we're basically overdressed cavemen decked out with high-tech toys like laptops, airplanes, machine guns, and bombs, what does this mean?

Well, for Gardner it means that come crunch time, when we make decisions that matter, we often get it wrong: we let our guts override our heads. And so, in the aftermath of the catastrophic attacks of 9-11, millions of people temporarily stopped flying. The problem with this response is that car travel is far more dangerous than air travel. As a result, Gardner reports, 2002 saw a spike of 1,595 more auto deaths in the United States than would normally have occurred in a given 12-month period.

Post-September 11, Gardner writes, we sanctioned the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars on various fronts in the war on terrorism; at the same time, we largely ignored much more serious, though less media-accessible, public-health risks. Each year, 36,000 Americans die of the flu, 100,000-plus from obesity-related illnesses. Why weren't we panicked by these numbers in the ways we were by 9-11? Gardner argues that it's in large part because, for the media, it's far easier to cover, and sell, a human-made tragedy than an act of nature, and, increasingly, our responses are shaped by the information conveyed to us by the media.

Hence, we are willing to have our government spend hundreds of billions of dollars building up a security infrastructure to protect us from the threats of terrorism. But we get up in arms about financial waste when scientists ask for a fraction of that amount of money to map asteroids potentially lethal to humanity.

More generally, Gardner writes that we let ourselves be fooled by rumors -- such as the widely circulated but never accurately sourced claim that 50,000 pedophiles are surfing the Internet looking for victims at any given moment -- and we then create public policies based around these rumors. We read newspaper headlines about a school shooting, and we respond by locking down a generation, making children pass through metal detectors to go to class, refusing to let kids play outside unattended. As a result, we're raising a generation of children who don't exercise enough and spend too much time in front of televisions and computers.

And when it comes to numbers we do even worse. Gardner quotes an experiment in which some students are asked whether they would buy a piece of airport safety equipment that would save 150 lives and others are asked whether they would buy equipment that would save 98 percent of the 150 lives. Somehow, adding in the 98 percent increased support, even though fewer lives would actually be saved. Our brains, Gardner posits, have an inbuilt "wow factor"; we look for bold claims such as the one stressing the 98 percent success rate.

While both books are generally well written, each has one noticeable flaw. Marcus concludes his book with a sort of how-to guide to improve the working of the brain. It's clumsy and superficial, and the book would have benefited from its excision.

Gardner's flaw is more serious. The journalist's strength lies in pointing out, often with nice touches of humor, how policies and social needs are shaped and prioritized more via gut than logic. "One ad on my local radio station told listeners they should buy a home alarm because 'break-ins are on the rise!'" he writes in a section that deals with public fears around crime. He then gleefully adds: "Which the police told me was correct only if one defined the phrase 'on the rise' to mean 'declining.'"

Unfortunately, Gardner's humor is not matched by his ability to analyze the social implications of catastrophic events. So keen is he to detail the absurdities of an array of current social, economic, and military priorities that he underplays genuine and serious threats. In particular, the almost flippant way in which he dismisses the possibility of terrorist groups using weapons of mass destruction, and his inane confidence that should a nuclear attack be launched on a major city it would have only passing economic and social significance, significantly weakens his otherwise strong arguments.

Flaws aside, both books are worth reading. I'd read Marcus' book first for the scientific theories; then I would pick up Gardner's, skimming his explanations of the science and getting straight into the political and social implications of the culture of fear that our misfiring collective brain has created.

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