January 3, 2008 - Who Can You Trust?
Recently I ran across an article debunking some longstanding medical myths. Among them is the idea that "We use only 10% of our brains." In reality, according to WebMD Medical News, "Most of the brain isn't loafing. Detailed brain studies haven't found the 'non-functioning' 90% of the brain."
I found that strangely comforting. OK, we could be smarter, but not 10 times smarter.
Then I read a very pleasant book, written in a light, breezy style, by one Cordelia Fine. But it was on a delayed fuse. The title of the book is, "A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives."
Here's the bottom line: the evidence suggests, and there's a lot of it, that you are not in charge of your life. Almost all of your decisions, likes and dislikes, and even so-called "voluntary" movements are under the direct control of your unconscious.
And your unconscious is not to be trusted.
Psychology is getting positively frightening these days. Experiment after experiment is showing us a host of unflattering truths about ourselves.
Consider this sampling from the table of contents:
* The Vain Brain: for a softer, kinder reality. Your memory is a work of fiction. Other people may make mistakes. You were misled by circumstance.
* The Immoral Brain: the terrible toddler within. We want what we want. And what's more, almost everybody can be coerced, by just the mildest of authority figures, into committing abominable acts. The author recounts the famous "Milgram obedience studies," in which "about two-thirds of ordinary men and women will obediently electrocute a fellow human being."
* The Deluded Brain: a slapdash approach to the truth. We believe a host of things that simply aren't true. What's more, we are susceptible to the most obvious ploys. Here's an example: if I ask you if you're happy with your social life, you'll tell me that you mostly are. If I ask you if you're unhappy with your social life, you'll tell me that you mostly are. How I ask the question has a lot to do with how you are "framed" to answer it. Clearly, this has profound implications in the worlds of media, business, and politics.
* The Pigheaded Brain: loyalty a step too far. We don't consider the evidence, then make up our minds. We make up our minds, and arrange the evidence to fit. Or better yet, we are impervious to the evidence. Fine, an Australian, cites the certainty among many Americans that Iraq had something to do with 9/11.
* The Secretive Brain: exposing the guile of the mental butler. Subtle measurements have determined that even in simple tests like "raise your finger," the motor signal begins long before the conscious mind is aware of it.
* The Weak-willed Brain: the prima donna within. Having trouble dieting?
* The Bigoted Brain: "thug....tart...nerd...airhead." Once again, psychology shows us how very difficult it can be to rid ourselves of foolish and destructive prejudice.
But is it hopeless? No. Fine makes several useful points.
First, the unconscious may not always be reliable, but it's often useful. Think of driving to work -- a task that when you were learning to drive took everything you had. Now, you can listen to the radio, talk with friends, and devote your consciousness to other tasks, however inappropriate. The unconscious, most of the time, handles things with remarkable ease. Life would be difficult without it.
Second, you actually can dig into your brain and correct its more egregious errors. People have succeeded in conquering their wanton urges, or resisting mind control, or combating prejudice. It takes work, though.
Third, far from "only using 10% of our brains," our brains are so quick, so busy, so sly, so relentless, that it would be more correct to say that we're only AWARE of about 10% of our brain.
And that's the way it wants it.