Tyson is brilliant and entertaining as usual, of course, but how successful is he at persuading people to accept the science and find comfort in our ignorance instead of inventing explanations? Perhaps not a whole lot, given how prone we are to what Tyson here calls “brain failure”. Chris Mooney, in an excellent piece in Mother Jones, explores how these brain failures mean that even the best science may not be enough to persuade people away from their long-held irrational beliefs – even when those beliefs fail spectacularly! What a flawed species we are, and how precious is this candle in the dark we’ve invented called science…
A wonderful essay from a wonderful writer (and neuroscientist) about how evolution’s tinkering with our brain has shaped (and clouded?) our emotional and moral thinking by co-opting existing brain regions towards new functions, crudely mapping metaphoric/psychic experiences onto analogous physical ones. Fascinating stuff – you’ll want to read it in its entirety, of course, but here’s a taste:
Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.
And we even understand that June isn’t literally busting out all over. It would seem that doing this would be hard enough to cause a brainstorm. So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.
Consider an animal (including a human) that has started eating some rotten, fetid, disgusting food. As a result, neurons in an area of the brain called the insula will activate. Gustatory disgust. Smell the same awful food, and the insula activates as well. Think about what might count as a disgusting food (say, taking a bite out of a struggling cockroach). Same thing.
Now read in the newspaper about a saintly old widow who had her home foreclosed by a sleazy mortgage company, her medical insurance canceled on flimsy grounds, and got a lousy, exploitative offer at the pawn shop where she tried to hock her kidney dialysis machine. You sit there thinking, those bastards, those people are scum, they’re worse than maggots, they make me want to puke … and your insula activates. Think about something shameful and rotten that you once did … same thing. Not only does the insula “do” sensory disgust; it does moral disgust as well. Because the two are so viscerally similar. When we evolved the capacity to be disgusted by moral failures, we didn’t evolve a new brain region to handle it. Instead, the insula expanded its portfolio.
[Hat-tip: Carl Zimmer at the Loom]