The neurobiology of mass delusion
Perceiving the realities of a changing environment
By Jason Bradford
History is replete with examples of social organizations, whether a business or a nation, that failed to perceive the realities of a changing environment and didn't adapt in time to prevent calamity. Hubris and a self-reinforced dynamic of mass delusion characterize the waning phases of these once powerful groups. In hindsight we ask, "What were they thinking? Wasn't the situation obvious to everyone? The evidence is so clear!" Here's the question we should ask next: "Is history now repeating itself?"
Anyone familiar with the concepts of overshoot, resource depletion, global climate change, mass extinction, and related ills, wonders why the media, church groups and political leaders do not vigorously discuss these topics. By contrast, those unfamiliar with these issues assume that because they are not covered closely, the problems must not be too worrisome. My view is that science and history are correct, and we are headed for a major planetary disaster as far as humans are concerned.
I've tried to understand why the human brain, on a collective level at least, is apparently incapable of dealing with obvious problems. Here's what I've learned.
For a clue to how the mind works, imagine getting startled in your own home. A shadowy figure lurking in a doorway elicits a powerful jolt to your system. It is only your spouse, of course, but it takes about half a second to realize that. This reveals what neurobiologists can now see with modern imaging techniques: visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought. A false alarm is inconvenient, yes, but a necessary burden. Without that startle response, a lion may have eaten us.
Emotions motivate and guide us. Fear of the lion prepares the body for fight or flight. Love binds individuals into cohesive units greater than the sum of their parts. When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards (feels good) or punishments (feels bad) and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. The neocortex works with our emotions to solidify our plans. We dream about a goal and anticipate the emotional rewards of realizing it. Our self-esteem can be wrapped up in these goals and plans. They become our "mental models," setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are. This is how we become determined to "stick with the program." Mental models may range from the very short term and mundane, such as a plan to jog 12 laps, to lifetime goals and worldviews, such as a career path and religious beliefs.
Another clue about how the mind works comes from a famous experiment on the nature of the brain duality. Two films were made; both included a basketball team passing a ball among them. In one film a woman with an umbrella walks through the scene, in the other film it's a gorilla. People were randomly shown one of the films and randomly told either to count the number of ball passes made or just watch. Now consider the mindset of the counters. They have a goal, they bind this goal to an emotional reward, and they anticipate getting the "right answer" and "feeling good." All of those told to just watch and report anything interesting about the film recall either the woman with an umbrella or the gorilla. Over a third of those counting missed the woman and over half missed the gorilla.
When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption, aiming to avoid disappointment or disillusionment. Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal. If a gorilla isn't involved in actually passing the ball, then don't pay attention to the gorilla. Depending upon circumstances, this focus can be advantageous or dangerous. If a mathematician is working on the proof of a theorem in the safety of his office that is fine, but doing so on a busy street can be deadly.
A changing environment, such as a busy street, requires us to be open to new sensory inputs and to be willing to modify or even dismiss outmoded mental models. Rigidity of mental models in the face of countervailing information is called denial. Given what we now know about the structure and function of different brain regions, we can understand the physiological roots of denial. The data nullifying a cherished mental model are systematically filtered out before the conscious brain is even aware of them. The expression, "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil," exemplifies this censoring process.
The conscious brain is not a simple dupe however. It can actively participate in the act of denial. This is termed "rationalization," and involves complex neocortical functions. People can erect fancier houses of cards and hold on to their cherished beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Many will admit that is what they are doing by resorting to the expression, "Well, I just have faith," even when the subject is not overtly religious. This point in a discussion signals that the mental model being challenged is very important for the person, and to remove it would cause a serious and painful identity crisis. Who wants that kind of grief?
You can witness this brain duality in operation while watching debates between some of the dominant personalities of our culture, mainly those representing large financial and business interests, and the concerned watchers and interpreters of physical reality, mainly scientists in the realms of ecology, geology and climatology. Because the scientists are challenging fundamental assumptions of our culture, such as the basis for "progress" and the consequences of "economic growth," many cannot agree with the scientists without losing their identity. This threat to the mental model is simply too great to accept. Hence you encounter two modes of response from those accepting of the prevailing paradigm: (1) the scientific data are not reliable, and (2) faith in technological progress and/or human ingenuity.
So when wondering why so many people just "don't get it," (oil depletion, overshoot etc.) whether they are your local politician or great aunt, realize there is a physiological mechanism that may preclude having a rational discussion on certain topics. The truth can only be pushed so far before rebellion occurs, hence the phrase, "To kill the messenger." Before many folks can learn and incorporate the lessons of ecology, most could use the services of a good shrink. Someone to call them on their bull and get them to face their faulty, contradictory, and destructive thought patterns.
I fear the world has neither enough shrinks nor enough time to wait for the long process of psychotherapy to work. Furthermore, enshrined institutions embody dangerous mental models within their various charters, goals and mission statements. If anyone happens to have a crisis of confidence, these institutions work to reassimilate the disenchanted, quietly dismiss them, or destroy their reputations. Of course these are the worst possible responses. As Jared Diamond explains in his book Collapse, history is replete with societies that failed to question their own assumptions and create new paradigms. Instead of making life possible in a changed environment, they are part of archeology's trash heap.
Those who know about "peak oil," monetary debts, climate change, militarism, overpopulation, corporatism, soil loss, aquifer depletion, persistent organic pollutants, deforestation, etc., realize we are at a major historical juncture now. Since we know it is past time to change our culture, the question we have is whether most people will bother to listen and create the necessary transition in a rational, nonviolent manner.
For those who find the terms in the previous paragraph somewhat mysterious, try this. Research the "laws of thermodynamics" and compare them to the cultural imperative for "economic growth." See if you can recognize and then resolve the tension between the two in your mind. If you can't resolve the tension, decide which one of these has to go. Look back at the terms in the previous paragraph and ask how they relate to what you've just learned. Caution: afterwards you may need a good shrink.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jason Bradford, Ph.D., of Willits has been a research scientist for the Missouri Botanical Garden,a research associate at the UC Davis Herbarium, and a visiting scholar with the UC Davis Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy.