For centuries, the human brain has been a kind of black box, a place we could theorize with impunity, which is to say, without fear of scientific contradiction. Well, the box has been cracked open, and our theoretical free lunch is at an end. And what contemporary brain and consciousness research is discovering is at best, perplexing, at worst, terrifying.
So what will the result be? What happens when an indigestible fact hits a culturally sensitive stomach? Will we get sick? Or will we pass it like a green penny? The history of evolution provides us with a possible model of what to expect, with the battle being primarily fought over education. But then, I would argue that evolution is only partially indigestible. Where a good fraction of us have abandoned the theoretical accounts handed down to us by our self-aggrandizing ancestors, the kinds of theories brewing in brain science could prove psychologically impossible, as opposed to merely socially difficult, to believe.
As a culture, and perhaps as human beings, we simply find some facts too unpalatable. Think about it: psychologists have been researching our cognitive infirmities for decades, yet still we’re urged to ‘believe in ourselves’ everywhere we turn. Our children are taught absolutely nothing about the cognitive traps that will see them addicted, divorced, economically victimized, not to mention stranded without retirement savings at the end of their lives–the same as we were taught absolutely nothing. We all like to think that we, at least, are ‘critical thinkers,’ yet we’re besieged with claims that dispense with rationality altogether, opting instead to milk our biases with things like repetition and associative conditioning. Those are the ads and commercials we see because they work on us. Far better than independent evidence and cogent argumentation does–that’s for sure.
This is what happens when science serves up facts more indigestible than evolution. We end up with a society where the masses live in outright ignorance and denial, while the dominant institutions, thanks to market and political expediency, continually reorganize themselves around actionable intelligence as it comes in. Consider Nielsen’s recent purchase of Neurofocus, a brain-based market research company, for some billion dollars. Watch an episode of Intervention lately? You should know that A&E markets air-time to potential advertisers using Neurofocus research data that shows audiences are significantly more susceptible to commercial manipulation when viewing emotionally extreme content. Given such content, they say, “there is an opportunity to engage viewers’ subconscious minds in equally, and often even more powerful and gripping ways.”
Think about it for a moment. They’ve literally given up engaging our conscious minds–probably because we’re too inclined to make our own damn decisions–so, following the path of greatest competitive advantage, they’re doing everything they can to make those decisions for us–and in such a way that we will take credit for them no less!
As the tools and techniques of brain science become ever more sophisticated, you can bet the manipulation will become ever more sophisticated and ever more effective. The real question is what will we do, given that empowering ourselves requires collectively coming to grips with some out and out indigestible facts. My guess is that we’ll remain rooted to our recliner same as always, craving franchise food and shaking our head at all the sheeple out there.
Did I forget to mention that we’re prone to always think it’s always the other guy who’s been duped?
Like I said, the list goes on and on and on…
R. Scott Bakker is the author of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousdandfold Thought, a trilogy that Publishers Weekly calls “a work of unforgettable power.” He is also the author of The Judging Eye. He spent his childhood exploring the bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore and his youth studying literature, languages, and philosophy. He now lives in London, Ontario, with his wife, Sharron, and their cat, Scully.