Nov 11 2009 1:58pm

A Fact More Indigestible than Evolution (Part II)

NeuropathFor 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.

Dan Sparks
1. RedHanded
So what is the answer then? Do we need a better educational system? I'd say yes. Perhaps a system that isn't so intent on having one graduate in a timely manner but instead one that you actually learn to think for yourself? Seems like it would be more beneficial to instead of teaching concrete dates, names and facts to actually teach a student how to think things through and figure out the rest on their own, i.e. critical thinking, or thinking in concepts instead of concretes, the big picture so to speak. I know how to read, having a teacher tell me what is in the textbook and quizzing me on insignificant specifics isn't going to make me smarter nor is trying to force a student to learn something that they will never need (Does an English major need calculus? Does someone wanting to be a theoretical mathemetician need to be bogged down with literature that they may or may not appreciate?)

I think regardless of any form of psychological manipulation a person still has the choice to think and process the information or to just accept it blindly. Knowing about your own tendencies and blind spots definitely helps when processing information, as you know what to keep an eye out for. Truth is the recognition of reality, and regardless of someone not being able to digest it properly, should only superficial lies be told so we don't walk around with quesy stomachs? I think you'd agree, and possibly most people, that they would rather have the truth than lies, but like you said a lot of people have trouble accepting the truth when it's right in front of them or even accepting a reasoned logical argument as opposed to generalized statements that "sound good".

I think the problem is the system in which we have been born, one that is fine with mediocrity, one where people continue to be complacent with what is as opposed to what could be. There are so many socio/political institutions(eduation/FDA/welfare to name a few) set up to take the burden off of people so they don't have to use their own judgment and most people find it more convenient to allow others to do the thinking for them than to actually take a chance on their own mind.(I for one don't think it's a burden) I can only think of one way to change the way things are and that is to not be complacent, to not keep silent about the issues that are important and to embrace and take responsibility for the judgment of your own mind. Change doesn't happen overnight but I think that this would be a step in the right direction.
James Wu
2. kamikazewave
No offense to redhanded, but in my opinion, one of the biggest obstacles to teaching critical thinking in school is the attitude of "when am I ever going to use this?"

Teaching basic calculus to someone gives them more tools to make judgements around the world. A basic understanding of what derivatives are would help many people making everyday decisions. Likewise, having the ability to critically analyze a passage or article also gives a person better tools to make sound judgments. Saying things such as "I won't ever use this" means you're simply accepting your place as a neuron based robot, believing you'll only need the few trade tricks you need for your job.

The optimal way to teach critical thinking is to improve the quality of basic education. Having a pool of knowledge to draw upon will allow people to make more informed judgments. Dismissing history or math as just a collection of dates and numbers is ridiculous. Considering the appalling standards in most schools, the simplest way to produce adults capable of making better choices is to simply improve the pool of knowledge they have to draw on. Expecting people who are barely literate and who know only basic arithmetic to "think in concepts, the big picture" is unreasonable. What does that even mean anyways?
3. Freelancer
The answer most certainly is better education. But it is not a better education system. Without a 100% overhaul of how primary and secondary schooling is handled, it is impossible to consider critical thinking a subject with the remotest chance of success in the classroom.

Individuals are responsible for their own actions. Until maturity, parents are responsible for the actions, the motivations, and the preparation of their children to become responsible adults.

The way to teach critical thinking is for parents to actively engage their children in critical thinking as early as possible. Arm them against the subtle and not-so-subtle emotional appeals to their appetites. And not only so that they are not taken in by slick advertising, but the many other forms of temptation which assault people daily as well. Give them a reason to understand the consequences of actions, and expect of them to ask themselves to justify their desires prior to blindly fulfilling them.

Teach them to put their conscious mind in the way, no matter how deftly it is being pushed aside, from within or without.
Dan Sparks
4. RedHanded
I think you might have missed my point, or perhaps I didn't clarify well enough.

Thinking in concepts as opposed to concretes, would be instead of just memorizing dates, names, formulas being able to discern the significance of what they are and understanding what is essential and what is not. Instead school seems mostly a game of repeat back to me what I just said. I say mostly because there are some classes that I took in college that went beyond that..just not many. My point was that schools are NOT teaching critical thinking and that's the problem.

I agree that the more knowledge a person has the better able they are to make a rational decision. 100% My point was not that history or math or any subject is just a collection of dates/numbers or what have you (because they are not) but that those are things that a mind able to research and think things through can do on their own. Like I said, I don't need a teacher to tell me what is in a book when I can read it myself, the teacher should be teaching the students the right questions to ask and how to go about educating themselves and what to look for to verify their information, because I think that's still important even after someone goes as far as they can or want to in school.

I don't think if critical thinking was taught that people would be saying "when am I going to be using this?" as it would be something to apply to all areas of someone's life. People say "when am I going to be using this?" when it does not pertain to their interests or their life. EX. Do I need to know the presidents and the order they served as President? Not at all. Now could we pick some Presidents out and go through what they accomplished and what the significance of those accomplishments were and why? Yes, that would be way more useful as a tool that just memorizing.

I don't think simply having knowledge available is enough, come on we have the internet, I can look up just about anything I want to. Just because a pool of knowledge is available does not mean people are going to use it.

I assume you are talking about children when you are talking about people who are barely literate and know basic math and I don't expect them to do anything, I'm saying it should be taught. Once a child reaches a certain age they are able to reason, they can be taught obviously. Once a child is able to reason why not teach them how to reason? How to find facts, what facts are important, how they know they are facts and how those facts fit in with the rest of their knowledge...that is thinking conceptually, that is the big picture.
Dan Sparks
5. RedHanded
@ 3 Freelancer

I agree the parents have a major responsibility to educate their children also, especially in regards to critical thinking. I agree with most of what you said actually..but..always a but,

What should be taught in schools then? If a parent has fulfilled their responsibility and their child can take on a subject and break it down and understands it on their own...then what do I need the teacher for? To bounce your ideas off of? Then why go to class, I'll come to your office hours, right? I can shoot you an email with questions. Know what I'm saying?

I think school is important for sure, I just think that the school I have in mind is different from the schools you see today.

I think we all agree education is the key, I think it's how to go about it that we disagree on. BUT that is a starting point, just a matter of figuring out how to make it work.
Stephen Dunscombe
6. cythraul
We are starting to see people consciously combat the traps their own minds set for them. A shining example that comes to mind is a personal finance blog, I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

The writer there, Ramit Sethi, looks at the sort of counterproductive behaviours that the mind produces - "You both intellectually and emotionally consider behaviour X as preferable, and yet you continue to engage in behaviuor Y instead" - and talks about how to construct workarounds for them (He talks a lot about passive and active barriers, both to desirable behaviours and to undesirable behaviours.)

A small, concrete example that comes not from IWTYTBR but from a similar blog, Get Rich Slowly: controlling impulse spending with a "thirty day" rule. You don't want to engage in impulse-spending, and yet you do. So you keep a list - every time you get the urge to buy something (something outside your established needs), you instead add it to a list, and date it. When it's been on the list for 30 days, if you still want it, then you can think about buying it. I find Amazon's wishlist is useful for similar purposes - when I have a strong impulse to buy a particular movie or DVD or what-have-you, I add it to my wishlist instead. The "instead" is key - the very act of adding it to my wishlist seems to satisfy the buy-impulse; some part of my mind feels I've now acquired the item, and is satisfied.

This is all very roundabout, I know, but my point is some people do take the irrational directions of their minds and, rather than giving in to them and rather than trying to directly resist them with willpower, they take actions that allow for them.
Jeff R.
7. Jeff R.
Why do I vaguely suspect that the author has failed to digest some of the most unpalatable bits of the coming feast, and has in fact internalized their negation?

In particular, it's not entirely certain that conscious thought (1) is at all a good thing in a survival/success/effectiveness sense, or even (2) has any real effect on any but the most marginal of decisions. Advertisers may have given up on influencing the conscious mind because influencing it doesn't do anything of use.

And if that indigestible idea is a fact, then all of the education in the world won't make us more rational, but only better at rationalization.
8. Freelancer

Valid questions. Schools as they are now (minus any valueless indoctrinations) are perfectly suited to the dispensing of foundational knowledge on the primary subjects, including process and method.

The reasoning behind my diatribe @3 is that I encounter far too many young folk whose parents utterly abdicated any role in their education, believing it adequate to just feed and clothe them until they could be sent off to learn at school. I could read the great majority of what was printed in newspapers before I ever stepped into a school, understood basic arithmetic, and knew how to ask questions about things I didn't comprehend. That last is actually the most valuable. Among the things most schools, including colleges, fail to teach, is how to learn.

Children are sponges, it is almost limitless how much and how quickly they can soak up information. Failing to give them the best foundation for how to gather and organize that information while their brains are still expanding is an utter shame.

So, all that said, I would agree with you completely that an ideal school would be far different than the present conventional model. The rote information would still be delivered, but far more emphasis would be placed upon viewing information in an analytical manner, exploring the hows and why's of the ability to learn.

The ancient fish parable comes to mind. Schools today pass out fish (minnows at best) each day, and that often intentionally, in order to retain their status in the larger heirarchies. What a world we would have if schools devoted themselves purely to training students to become master fishers of both knowledge and understanding.
Marcus W
9. toryx
I've felt for a long time that focusing on improving education (whether it's the eductation system, the teachers, or the method of instruction is a whole other argument) should one of the most critical items on a list of cultural improvements.

The more I learn about what's been done over the last few decades and what's being done now (at least in the U.S. and Great Britain) the more convinced I am that the degregation is purposeful. If children are not being taught critical thinking, to analyze their beliefs and understanding of the world the adults that result will be all the easier to lead.

This is taking the suggestions Mr. Bakker has made in his post to a whole level beyond advertisement. And frankly, on the surface it looks like a big conspiracy theory or something. But if you look at the way education has been treated for the last 30 or 40 years and the choices that have been made especially in the last decade, it paints a really disturbing picture.
Jeff R.
10. Nick Mamatas
audiences are significantly more susceptible to commercial manipulation when viewing emotionally extreme content

You mean like following up a post about how neuroscience demonstrates how we are all irrational sheep-slaves followed immediately by an ad-in-excerpt for a new novel on the topic by the same author!

Darn you Bakker, you won't hip-MO-tize me! (Plus, I don't have any money.)
Dan Sparks
11. RedHanded
@ 8 Freelancer

Well said, now the question is how do people who know there is a better way go about changing the status quo?

I think the only answer that is sustainable would be to have education be placed on the free market instead of run by the state or local government. Competition for students and their parents money would drive efficiency and quality of education. Right now there is a flat standard that schools have to meet (state standards I believe) and there is no incentive for them to do better. Left to become stagnant you get a mediocre education at the expense of the taxpayers who have no choice in the matter.

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