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Philosophy Tuesday

July 11, 2017

This is a philosophical statement. It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

Our brains have a pretty darn strong us/them detector.  And it’s a fast one too, as in tenth of a second fast.  See someone, or an image of someone, and boom, before we even register there’s a face there that part of our brain has slapped a label on it.  Recent neuroscience research is even able to watch this happen in real time.  Show test subjects a face, see their brain reaction.

Ok, that we split people into us/them groups is not all that surprising.  What might be, though, is that WHAT is pegged as different and other is completely arbitrary.  More than that even;  in fact highly malleable.

Take those same images, the ones shown to the test subjects where their minds were observed categorizing the people in the photos as in/out, us/them, kin/other, and show them a second time, this time with many of the people in the photos wearing a baseball cap of the local popular sports team.  That “other” response… goes away.  Just doesn’t arise.  The first time through:  person gets flagged as other.  Second time through with the hat:  nope, part of my tribe.

That’s fascinating.

Even crazier, the research found that the sensitivity of the detector (ie, make our brains ping “other” more often) can be heightened by simply placing someone in a room with a foul odour in the background.

So easily malleable.

Our brains “otherize” people based on all sorts of things:  skin colour, hair length, gender, body proportions, accents, perceived upbringing, fashion sense, music tastes, choice of operating systems, the list goes on.  And there’s nothing inherent, or even correct about any of it.  So much can set it off.

Which means we can adjust it.  We’re not locked into anything.  No one is.  Baseball caps can change the detector’s response (for or against – put on your rival’s team and watch it swing wildly);  with mindfulness and choice we can do the same.  That to which we do or do not recoil from is under our control.

And even when our detector pings based on one of those hundreds of hidden variables, it’s still just a ping.  It’s no different than the feeling you have right now of a thousand cockroaches and ants crawling all over you and up your arms and into your hair and along the soles of your feet, just from reading this sentence.*  Feelings can be great indicators of something, and so is this.  But they are not a determiner.  That meaning is all up to us.

Our brains continue to hand us these us/them judgments, all the time.  But that is no straightjacket.  It does not doom us to certain actions and reactions.  Rather, we are getting a signal:  to be present, to be mindful, to look around, and to be curious.  There can be gold on them thar other hills.

 

* Sorry for that sensation…

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