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Bias in the Brain


By Carolyn Kay

Are we all a bunch of biased partisans, who never think about our beliefs, or change them?  You might think so after reading about a recent study.  The Washington Post (“Study Ties Political Leanings to Hidden Biases”) reports that an Emory University psychologist, Drew Westen, discovered using brain scans that individuals presented with negative information about political candidates “were quick to spot inconsistency and hypocrisy -- but only in candidates they opposed.”  Further, according to the Post:

When presented with negative information about the candidates they liked, partisans of all stripes found ways to discount it, Westen said. When the unpalatable information was rejected, furthermore, the brain scans showed that volunteers gave themselves feel-good pats -- the scans showed that "reward centers" in volunteers' brains were activated…

But the finding does not mean we are slaves to these kinds of reactions.

Does anyone remember The Road Less Traveled, by Scott Peck?  If you’re one of the millions of people who bought that book, please dig it out, dust it off, and read it again.  It’s Dr. Peck’s explanation of what love is, and we could all certainly use a dose of love right now.

The first sentence of the book is, “Life is difficult.”  We all have a “map of reality” in our brain, Dr. Peck said, which is often faulty.  Ignoring what’s wrong with our map is painful, but so is the recognition that something is wrong and taking the necessary steps to change the map.  That’s why life is difficult.  It’s painful either way.  But if we’re dedicated to the truth, Dr. Peck said, we’ll suffer the pain involved in changing our maps from time to time, because it is the lesser pain.  And there’s an extra added attraction that changing the map gets easier, the more we do it.

We’ve long understood that mastery of physical skills is associated with physical connections in the brain.  Learning to ride a bike, to play tennis, or to do karate well take time, practice, willingness to acknowledge errors and correct them, and lots and lots of repetition.  Once learned, many physical skills are never forgotten.  We have a term for it, we call it muscle memory.  The more we learn about the brain, as the Emory study shows, the more we understand about the physical processes involved in thinking and behavior.  It appears that ways of thinking and behaving are physically imprinted in the brain, like muscle memory.  That would explain why it is difficult to change behaviors, even when they are detrimental to our well being.

There has been at least one study demonstrating the likelihood that ways of thinking are partly inherited.  But life experiences and our reactions to them, interacting with the world around us, then develop the brain connections and change them.  So the bad news is that our beliefs and prejudices are physically represented in the brain.  But the good news is that we can change those connections.  The process isn’t easy, but as Dr. Peck said, it gets easier with practice.

Why would we ever want to change our beliefs and prejudices?  When they interfere with our ability to live our lives with some degree of security and enjoyment, change is essential.

A couple of months after the September 11 attacks in 2001, I got an email message from one of my nieces that contained a poem entitled, “The Angel in the Stairwell”.  I wrote her back, asking if she was afraid of being hurt by terrorists.  She wrote back a very tiny, “yes”.  So I wrote her that because she lives in a small town in Louisiana, the chances are very, very slim that she would ever be hurt by terrorists.  I asked her if she would try to remember that every time she gets scared, and then imagine herself to be in a very safe place.  She wrote back, “yes”.

We haven’t discussed it again, so I don’t know if my niece is following my advice, but I’d like to offer that same suggestion to all Americans.  Ever since those attacks on our soil, many Americans have acted as though each and every one of us is in immediate danger of being killed in some horrible way.  I am ashamed to tell you that people in our government, especially our president, are taking every opportunity to enhance that fear.  They do it because it has helped them run roughshod over the Constitution, for which they have no respect.  They do it because it has helped them consolidate their power, which is the only thing they care about.  And we have let them.

Former Vice President Al Gore’s recent stirring speech on civil liberties reminded us that the founders of our country faced constant danger from the British troops stationed here.  But they willingly faced that danger to fight for the liberty we once enjoyed, but have cast away so carelessly.

Dr. Peck told us that love is paying attention to the one we care about, and being willing to suffer the pain of questioning our understanding of the world.  Real patriots, those who really love their country, will heed that call.  We will insist on realistic assessment of the dangers we face, and realistic responses to those dangers.  We will refuse to be slaves to any ideology.  We will dedicate ourselves to truth and to reality.

That’s when we’ll be free.

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Last changed: December 13, 2009