Our brilliant, dissonant brains

The Thatcher Effect

Our brains did not originally develop to understand quantum mechanics, mathematics, poetry, extremely niche algorithmically determined TikToks, nor any other of the multitude of things that fill the modern world. However, true to the nature of life, the human mind has adapted and repurposed itself from a surviving machine to a living machine, with the capability to do all of the above and more

It would be naïve, however, to think that the brain is brilliantly infallible and perfectly adapted to the complex thoughts of contemporary society. You only need to give someone a tongue twister, show them a picture of a blue and white dress in ambiguous lighting or place something in their blind spot to expose our brains as the flawed, gelatinous ball of error-prone protein that they are. Don’t get me wrong, brains are smart. They’re one of the best computers in the world — possibly the universe — but when you show it a digitally altered upside-down image of Margaret Thatcher it’ll convince itself that she looks perfectly normal when that is definitely not the case.

You see, our brains have evolved to help us make sense of the world, spot patterns and differentiate between good and bad. Sometimes, to do that efficiently, the brain takes shortcuts. This is why, for example, we see faces in places where there are none. The brain is so incredibly fine-tuned to picking up the emotions of a friend (or foe) that we end up thinking a tree looks sad, or a car is shocked, just because it has three shapes that roughly resemble the characteristics of eyes and a mouth. This phenomenon — face pareidolia — is just one of many examples of how human brains are extremely effective at navigating the world, but sometimes to the detriment of our rationality.

By Ted.ns — Own work, CC BY 4.0

Another classic example of our brain taking shortcuts is in resolving cognitive dissonance. Humans have a desire to maintain a state of harmony in our minds. One in which all our ideas fit together into a perfectly consistent narrative about the world. However, the world is messy and complicated. We often don’t have perfect information nor understand how things work, so we must rely on a system of beliefs and apparent truths that will, in some way, contradict every other person on the planet.

So how does our not-so-rational brain cope when it receives two pieces of conflicting information? It might think: “Oops! I was wrong! Considering this new information, I can adjust my core beliefs and values and grow as a person, happily admitting that I was previously mistaken”. You may have noticed, though, that this does not happen that often.

Instead, the brain does some very clever sleight-of-hand (read: hefty sophistry) to the effect of: “Oh. This new information does not agree with my core values and beliefs. This doesn’t feel great, but I know a shortcut to feeling better! I will assume what I learned first is correct. After all, I… learned it first. So, uh, that’s just, uh, how it works. Now, I shall reject this new, wrong, information. Maybe I should even get angry whilst I do it!? After all, it disagrees with what I already know, so the person sharing it is demonstrably incorrect.”

This usually follows with some defence, either verbally, physically, mentally or, if you’re on certain popular social media, an ad hominem rebuttal, a casual slur against a protected characteristic or a threat to life.

As humans, we like to think we’re immune to this kind of faulty reasoning. But that, in and of itself, is to resolve a kind of dissonance. Take Harari’s example of American society, built on the dissonance of liberty and equality. In isolation, both seem like causes worth supporting but, to obtain liberty you need to accept that not everyone can be equal and to bring equality you need to give up some freedoms. This conflict is a constantly collapsing pillar behind a lot of the world’s governance. Yet, we like to believe that our personal balance of freedom and equality, or clever reconciliation of the two makes us immune to this paradox.

If you’re on the traditional right of the political compass, you believe in a capitalist free market with total autonomy over the money you earn but at the expense of those that capitalism fails. If you’re on the left, you believe that taking away some of this liberty is worth it to ensure that everyone has a fairer chance in life. If you fall anywhere in between, you (1) probably believe in some compromise of the two and (2) think you are correct, where everyone else has fallen into the trap of bad reasoning.

Perhaps one of the greatest (or rather, worst) examples of cognitive dissonance that exists today is in our relationship with animals. If the average western human were presented with a list of animals, they could probably give a clear list of which are for eating and which are not. Typically, the no-eat list would comprise dogs, cats, guinea pigs, horses (unless you were partial to a supermarket lasagne circa 2013), dolphins and pigeons. With the cleared-for-consumption list containing pigs, cows, tuna, and chickens.

In the Slaughter House, Lovis Corinth, 1893

Even if you feel the lines are somewhat more blurred than this or that eating beloved pets is permissible — just not preferable — there is likely still some casuistry at play allowing simultaneous consumption and retention of a personal code of ethics.

Of course, in different parts of the world, this list may differ and, down to the individual, this code of ethics will vary. If there is no such thing as objective morality (and there is no good reason to think there is) then everyone may have different viewpoints and we cannot necessarily point to a clear winner. However, when the suffering of sentient creatures is at stake, it is important to at least try. Furthermore, the point of this example is not to address discrepancies that lie within collective beliefs but those that exist in an individual.

There is no question that animals feel pain. They have personalities and emotions. They can be extremely intelligent. They have some senses and perspectives beyond what a human could even comprehend. Animals have friends, they can mourn, and they can feel joy and suffering. To attribute these qualities to a dog or a dolphin might seem easy, but why not to a pig or a cow? The horror of killing animals has worn off on humans because it’s a common idea. It’s the way it has always been — and when has that phrase failed us before?

To tell a child — new and innocent to the world — the minutiae of slaughtering a pig or cow might seem cruel. This should tell us something about our own dissonance. Whilst we are on the subject, their response certainly wouldn’t be that of a seasoned predator in the wild which should also tell us something about this trite excuse for mass, industrial slaughter.

The brain doesn’t like disharmony. It wants to find a way to fend off this dissonance and restore order and reason. But remember that the brain doesn’t follow rational rules. It will distort and twist the world to fit its narrative, even if that means believing things that are not true. We cannot blame ourselves, however. This is human nature and difficult to fend off. We’re also constantly at the behest of media, advertising and education exploiting our cognitive failings to their advantage.

Presented with the fact that pigs can be more intelligent than dogs, that eating tuna ensures the death of dolphins or that chickens can be suffocated to death just for the sake of a quick snack triggers the defensive harmony-seeking brain. This is because, deep within our moral framework, we do not want to support the unnecessary death of sentient creatures.

The brain might argue that animals are not conscious, ignoring the fact that they are legally recognised as such and pass every test given to determine whether they are. The brain might say that “it is not a choice but a necessity! For, uh… protein!” Ignoring the evidence of millions of people across the globe who completely forgo eating animals and live extremely healthy lives and the studies that back them up.

Eventually, the brain might say: “Well! That’s what I’ve always done! It would simply be too difficult to change! Impossible, in fact!” Variations of this phrase have been used time and time again by people in positions of power, who can affect change but choose not to because it’s more convenient to keep things the same. Think about the villains of history books, who said it was impossible to make things better for a certain marginalised group, only for the heroes to go ahead and do it anyway, making the world better in the process. It’s easy to look back on those men (and let’s be real, nearly all villains have been men) now and, with our brilliant, intricate yet contradictory brains go: “I would never have been like him! I’d have been on the good side. I’d have done the right thing.”

There is more to the brain than just what was left by our ancestors. We can understand quantum mechanics, mathematics, poetry, and cognitive dissonance. We possess one of the best computers in the universe and we continually prove that to be true with the progress we have made. We can override our biases and heuristics and overcome our desire to maintain the status quo at the expense of others.

The best part is that harmony can be restored in the mind, just not necessarily via the path of least resistance. Having the ability to change what we accept as true in the presence of new information and make choices that improve the lives of ourselves and others is what makes the brain so incredible. Every day, that opportunity for growth is one of the most powerful capabilities we have.

So next time you are at a juncture of dissonant truths, beliefs, and actions, consider the contradictory brain and its propensity for restoring harmony. Perhaps a little bit of disruption, in the long run, will bring a greater calm than the instant gratification of rejecting new evidence. And maybe, by challenging the status quo, we’ll make the world a better place too.

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