The limbic society
Human beings are a strange lot. Even though we possess the capability of advanced logical reasoning, most of us still rely on the limbic system to guide us through our day-to-day business. Our emotions run high and dominate our actions and reactions. It’s a real paradox: after millions of years of evolution and adaptation we now have the most advanced analytical tool on the planet and what do we do with it? We keep it switched off for the majority of our lifetime*. What on earth are we thinking? (No pun intended)
The pain of self-awareness
Perhaps the reluctance to use our powerful brains comes from a fear of self-analysis. Imagine focusing on all the mistakes and blunders you’ve made in your lifetime. It would be like being on a constant trial; always going over every single action, looking at them from every possible angle, always analysing and re-analysing. Surely it’d be better to keep the brain safely switched off?
Also, what horrors might we not discover if we were to point our analytical tools at ourselves? You might find out things about yourself you’d rather not know. And once you learnt something, you can’t really un-learn it. Knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Lazy bird catch no worm
On the other hand, perhaps we don’t use most of our faculties because we’re frugal? Running our big brains on full power is costly, and we might want to save that energy for when we really need it.
Of course, in our modern society, finding enough food is hardly an issue and we could use as much brain power as we like without risking starving to death. But old habits die hard, and we might even be genetically programmed to be careful with using our minds to full effect, something I’ve touched upon before in the post The economy of racism.
Whatever the reason for us not using our prefrontal cortex, the end result is that we turn into preconditioned robots, where any external or internal stimuli results in a programmed emotional response. Push a button – get a reaction. The phrase ‘knee-jerk’ comes readily to mind.
So when we group us humans together in vast societies, what we end up with is a featureless mass of non-thinking, prejudiced and overly emotional primates. A mob that reacts instinctively to any situation, without knowing (or having any interesting in finding out) why they react as they do. Honestly, the only reason we don’t have angry villagers constantly roaming the streets with torches and clubs is the shackle of social convention; luckily, forming mobs is frowned upon.
Four levels of ignorance
Being emotional puppets have other consequences as well. By not actually using our brains, we just sail through life without paying much attention and learning even less.
If you present a text of vital information to a group human beings, they won’t read it. If you’re lucky, they might scan it through quickly and disinterestedly. Frustrated by the lack of communication, you might read the text out loud or explain it verbally, in order to try to get them to absorb the information. But humans don’t listen. Or if they do, they don’t really listen to what you’re actually saying, but rather what they think you should be saying. And if you somehow managed to get the message across, chances are they won’t understand it. A life in a state of an emotional zombie have left them void of any intellectual capacities. Finally, if, against all odds, you happen to reach a few who do actually understand you, they probably won’t care. Unless it affects them personally and directly, they will switch off and think about what to have for lunch instead.
I like to call it humanity’s four levels of ignorance: people don’t read, people don’t listen, people don’t think and people don’t care. It might sound depressive, but I’ve found it very useful to keep in mind when building web sites; don’t ever expect people to pay any kind of attention.
The future of humanity
But isn’t things getting better? Aren’t we more educated than ever before? Don’t we have all the information we need at our fingertips?
Well.. We are probably more educated than ever before, and we do have almost limitless information easily accessible. But we still don’t think. What’s the point of learning stuff if we never actually use it for anything? Or watching the news or reading articles if we don’t think about what we learn? We still only react emotionally, even though we might be using a fancier vocabulary than 200 years ago. Intellectual debates quickly degrade into emotional arguments and then into personal attacks. It’s like watching a group of chimpanzees working themselves into a frenzy.
And all this doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy. If the general populus don’t think for themselves and only reacts emotionally, it can be easily manipulated into voting for politicians who know how to play them. Enter the fringe parties, populists and extremists. When things get bad you can always count on them to muddy the political waters and confuse the voters.This means that ‘serious’ political parties that might want to make long-term changes for the better of society will find themselves forced to appeal to the least common denominator just to be able to stay in power. Which effectively prohibits any changes that won’t have immediate benefits for the majority of the population.
To summarise: we all carry around the most advanced type of brain on the planet. It’s like the Rolls Royce of brains, the best of the very best. So wouldn’t it be a shame to go through life without using it even a little? Go on – think! You’re worth it.
* Present company excluded obviously. You, gentle reader of my blog, show all the signs of being a creature of high intellect and advanced analytic thinking. Well done you!