Your Brain is Not Your Friend

A mind is a terrible thing. Whether because of the brain’s internal structure or the way social and cultural pressures cause our minds to develop and function, in the end the result is the same: minds that are not only easily deceived and frequently deceptive in their own right, but when caught out, refuse to accept and address their errors. If you have a mind — or even half a mind — you might be best off losing it entirely. Barring that, though, there are a few things you should know about the enemy in your head. Before it hurts someone.

I see red pandas.

In 1978, a red panda escaped from the Rotterdam zoo. Hoping to enlist the public in finding this rare and distinctive-looking animal — it looks a bit like raccoon crossed with a small bear, but bright red — the zoo contacted the papers and stories ran in the local press with descriptions and contact information in case the poor creature was seen. Just as the story ran, the panda was found, dead.

Over the next few days over a hundred red panda sightings were reported. Keep in mind, red pandas are indigenous to tropical India, not temperate Holland. There is no chance that some other red panda was being seen and reported to the authorities. It’s also not likely that people were hallucinating, either. What is likely is that people were seeing some other animal or something else they couldn’t identify immediately, and interpreting it as a red panda.

When confronted with an unknown phenomenon, the brain immediately attempts to impose some kind of pattern or meaning onto it. Apparently, the brain can’t stand not knowing what something is. What happened in Rotterdam is that the news stories primed people to recognize anything mysterious or otherwise unexplainable as “red panda”, despite the unlikeliness. In other conditions, the template for the unknown might be an angel, Sasquatch, a UFO, faeries, or a will-o-wisp. Since the brain is working with so little evidence, it essentially makes it up, making our observations highly suspect.

Speaking of Priming

The suggestability of the brain extends to more than just the unknown and unusual. As it turns out, even everyday events can be shaped by subtle cues in our environment. In one study, two groups of subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire, and offered a crumbly biscuit by a research assistant afterward. In the room where the survey was administered to one of the two groups, there was a hidden pail of water with a splash of cleaning fluid, filling the air with a slight scent.

The survey was a McGuffin; the real object of the study was to see what subjects would do after they ate the crumbly biscuit. What happened is this: the participants in the room where the smell of cleaning fluid hung in the air were much more likely to clean up the crumbs left by the biscuit than the others.

A subtle effect to be sure (they ought to try it with teenagers!) but a good example of what psychologists call “priming”. Priming calls on deep memory associations in the brain — like the association of the smell of cleaning products with the act of cleaning — which seems to trigger responses without any conscious awareness or intention on our part. Isn’t that great?

Hey hey, good looking!

It’s not just priming that can subtly and unconsciously affect the way we behave; as it happens, the beliefs other people have about us, even if they don’t know us, can also affect our behavior. For example, psychologists set up telephone conversations between a man and a woman. Neither could see the other. Before the conversation started, the man was shown a photograph of the woman he was going to meet on the phone. However, the photograph was actually picked randomly, and depicted either an attractive woman or an unattractive one (how this was determined I don’t know).

Men who believed they were talking with an attractive woman were much more friendly, active, and open during the conversation than men who believed they were talking to an unattractive woman. What’s more, the women — who did not know whether their partners believed they were attractive or unattractive — responded differently depending on the beliefs of their partner. Women who were believed to be unattractive were more detached, cold, formal, and even rude than those who were believed to be attractive.

Clearly these women were picking up on and responding to unconscious clues in the way their male partners spoke to them. When men were friendly and talkative, the women responded with warmth; when men were distant, women responded accordingly. But the subjects themselves did not report any difference in the way they thought they had acted — for them, they were just “normal”.

But there’s more. In interviews before the conversation took part, the men were asked to describe what they expected their partners to be like. Men who thought they were about to talk to an attractive woman said they expected her to be warm, open, friendly, and so on — which in most cases is exactly what she was. Men who expected their partner unattractive thought they would also be cold, distant, and unfriendly — and lo and behold, she was. In our minds, attractive people are better people — and apparently thinking makes it so.

“Nothing more than a dog’s breakfast”

Well, that’s brains for you — ” three and a half pounds of blood-soaked sponge” in Kurt Vonnegut’s colorful estimation. Somehow, this little bundle of nerves and fat manages to guide us through our days, most of the time without getting us killed. Along the way, though, these little quirks — and a host of others, which I’ll revisit at a later date — can cause a lot of trouble. Good people’s talents are overlooked because we don’t like the looks of them. The worst aspects of our personalities are brought to the fore because of a subtle environmental cue, like a briefcase on a table. We imagine things that aren’t there — and get offended when others have the audacity to question our observations. We find ourselves doing things with no rational explanation for why were doing them — and even worse, sometimes we don’t find ourselves doing them, we do them without even knowing!

It all seems rather hopeless, but I’m optimistic. Knowing how our minds get in their own way, we can catch these behaviors and put them right — or put them to work for us. It takes work — individual work for sure, and in some cases the work of our entire societies. But I’m convinced we can think of ways to minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive.

If only we didn’t have to rely on the same brains to figure that out…

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