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Ancient brains, modern dilemmas

The human species is uniquely equipped to shoot itself in the foot.

August 12, 2012|By K.C. Cole
  • "Most of what we do (or think) is based on 'thinking' that takes no time (or thought) at all," writes K.C. Cole.
"Most of what we do (or think) is based on 'thinking' that… (Daniel Zender / For The Times )

August is a great month for celebrating human stupidity.

On Aug. 6, 1945, we all but disappeared Hiroshima with a single atomic bomb, and then did it again, three days later, at Nagasaki. And now we barely seem to care.

The sad truth is, we are incapable of understanding exactly what these seemingly ancient events mean — right now, for all of us, today. The August anniversaries are a stark reminder that the brains we inherited from our ancestors simply may not be up to dealing with much of the modern world we've (they've) created — especially the most dangerous parts.

Few people today know firsthand what an atomic bomb can do to human beings. One American airman riding in the plane that dropped the Hiroshima bomb described what he saw as "a pot of boiling black oil." In an instant, people were reduced to charred cinders; survivors hobbled around with their skin hanging from their bodies like rags.

The carnage created widespread hope that such terrible weapons might mean no more war. We know how well that worked.

Today, the world has thousands of nuclear bomb-bearing missiles on "hair-trigger alert." They are thousands of times more destructive than the 1945 models, which were a thousand times more destructive than conventional weapons.

So why have humans done so little to neutralize the threat? To even recognize that these are tools of our own destruction?

For one thing, our brains don't really "grok" factors of a thousand. Imagine throwing a dinner party for four, and suddenly 4,000 show up; or your salary of $100,000 getting reduced to $100. The difference between a million, a billion and a trillion are also factors of a thousand, which is why we don't do so well comparing domestic budgets, say, with military ones, or the wealth of the truly wealthy with the poverty of the extremely poor.

A little number sense, and also stories that convey the information in ways our brains can perceive it, could go a long way toward helping us be less stupid. But that's merely a start.

The brain has other problems with the modern world. Take speed. Research pioneered at the lab of USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio revealed that it can take up to six seconds for the brain to process complex emotions such as empathy or admiration. That can be a long time in today's multitasking multiverse. What do we miss?

In fact, most of what we do (or think) is based on "thinking" that takes no time (or thought) at all.

In effect, we have at least two brains working together, more or less. The ancient "reptilian" brain is fast, bossy, sure of itself and never shuts up. The modern brain, primarily the cortex, is reflective, slow, conflicted and often defers to its elder. In the time it takes the reflective brain to give you a long-winded lecture on the perils of sweet greasy food, the reptile has you on your second jelly doughnut.

The ancient brain is what gets us through life on a daily basis. It can act in a flash to scoot you out of harm's way, tell friend from foe, get food, find a mate, win a fight. But it was a lot better suited to a time when humans had to wolf down every scrap of sugar and fat they could find to survive — and fought each other with sticks and stones.

These interacting brains have created some curious strategies for getting along. Consider "confirmation bias," now known to be behind some of the dumbest human decisions ever.

A simple example: Your reptilian brain gets you to flirt with that sexy lout, even though the rational brain knows better; rather than admit your mistake, you cherry-pick reasons to justify your acts and ignore all contradictory evidence. He did take you to that nice restaurant — even though he was two hours late, and "forgot" his wallet.

If we believe something is true (or simply trust the person who's saying it), we believe any argument that "supports" it, even when that argument is obviously false.

Don't get me wrong: Our brains are multilayered marvels. They landed an SUV-sized spacecraft on Mars with the grace of a ballerina; they gave us quantum mechanics (and with it, all of our electronic gadgets), relativity (thank it for your GPS); they gave us birth control, democracy, "The Daily Show," Bach, agriculture, baseball, banks.

The problem is that we let the brain get ahead of itself. We build weapons we can't or won't control, for example, and trade stocks faster than our neurons can fire. We generally allow the lizard brain too much say over complex issues only the cortex can really handle: the death penalty, intolerance, war, climate change

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