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Published: Sunday, March 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The mind-boggling ways our brains betray us

I could be wrong.
I think a lot about the paradox of the human brain, its inventive brilliance, its ability to create beautiful things, to communicate; along with its bewildering fallibility. If it's true, for example, that memories are a part of who we are, and if our memories are so often wrong, what does that say about our identity? Or about what we believe.
A couple of years ago we visited The Library of Congress, of which I had a clear recollection from my last visit there, when I was about 11. What we found was as far from my memory of it as foam is from fuzz. Clearly, my brain had stitched together some generic libraries I'd visited who-knows-when. The LOC is spectacular, and it was startling: how much else of what I remember is simply wrong? We trust that our knowledge and perceptions of the world are true, and yet they can't possibly be, all things, all the time; not even when it comes to our own past. Recognizing our fallibility and questioning the bases of our beliefs ought to happen more often than it does.
Humans can look the same set of facts and come to wildly differing conclusions, and then fight to maintain those conclusions no matter what contradictory evidence follows. For many, evidently, certain kinds of discordance are unmanageable. The brain needs order, creating it when there is none, whether contemplating the ephemeral or the profound.
I've been taken to task for claiming all Democrats are good and all Republicans are bad, something I've never said. I have pointed out, however, that in certain matters, like climate change, about which there is undeniable science and evidence right in front of our noses, there's a dramatic difference between the two parties. One accepts the facts; the other, as policy, succumbs to a compelling need to ignore them. That's what I'm talking about. It is, evidently, part of the human condition, coming from processes in our brains that, in today's complex world, seem self-defeating and dangerous.
There've been several studies about such matters, showing consistent differences between the brains of liberals and conservatives. The former, according to scans, show more grey matter in the part of the brain that deals with complexity; the latter have a bigger amygdala, where resides the fear response. Conclusion? I report, you decide.
In another study, after being shown evidence that no WMD were found in Iraq, the number of liberals who maintained the incorrect belief stayed the same (which I found embarrassing); but the number of conservatives who believed, falsely, that WMD were found actually increased when presented contrary evidence (which I found boggling, if Foxily consistent!) Such is the strength of that mysterious need.
I have some skepticism about behavioral research. Still, neurological responses have repeatedly been shown to differ between liberals and conservatives. Our brains aren't the same. Do inborn differences (chicken) cause differing beliefs, or do acquired beliefs change the brain (egg)? I don't think we know. As with other human traits, there is, no doubt, a spectrum. Many liberals are off their rockers, and many conservatives have a toehold on terrestrial attachment. But in study after study, consistent differences are demonstrated.
We all believe in evolution here, right? How it is that these two different brain types came to be? Maybe it's because, back when we were riding dinosaurs to the Creation Museum, we needed both planners and reactors. People who'd look at the big picture, find ways to work together, knit Birkenstocks from triceratops wool. And people who reacted quickly to threats, gut-thinkers, instinctive rock-hurlers. Maybe, in pre-human times, brains weren't capable of handling both things at once, or maybe the two tracks developed separately by accident, each conferring selectable benefits. In primitive society, with limited and mostly predictable threats, it could have worked well enough: differing tribes possessing differing survival skills. But life is more complex and less binary now; and whereas our brains are bigger, and probably capable of handling both thinks at once, by a quirk of evolution that chimp has sailed. Is what I'm thinking.
Which is unfortunate, because nowadays it seems impossible for the two groups to agree at all, even about what the facts are, much less how to address them. We're rapidly regressing back to where it all started: cudgels and head-bashing, when what we desperately need, but seem anatomically incapable of, is commonality and cooperation.

Sid Schwab lives in Everett. Send emails to

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