Sit racist, sit! Good boy.
As I mentioned last week, cognitive neuroscience shows that an epiphany occurs when seemingly unrelated thinking in the brain finds a link, and an analogy is established. One article and one radio program I listen to recently discussing similar brain science struck a cord with research I’ve been doing about racism and homophobia. The article was a New York Times science article written by Nicholas Wade entitled “Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?” And the radio program was a Diane Rehm interview (who by the way is a lot more attractive than her voice lets on) with Patricia McConnell author of For the Love of a Dog.
McConnell sites new research that finds dogs actually have emotions, who knew(besides dog lovers)? More specifically all mammals possess a ‘primative’ brain composed of Basil Brain (brain stem – medulla, pons, cerebellum, mesencephalon, basal nuclei) which controls involuntary functions, in addition to the Limbic System (hypothalamus,hippocampus, amygdala) McConnell focuses on the Limbic System which controls basic emotions, specifically fear and anger. This emotional center in humans is the same for dogs, and this decides gut instinct.
Any mammal that must makes a decision about survival will have an immediate reaction in the Limbic system. For a dog (Harley-Lab/Chow/Border Collie) they see a threat (Me with a brush) and become fearful and angry (whining and barking loud enough for Animal Control to hear).
Jonathan Haidt author of “The Happiness Hypothesis,” as noted in the Times article, discusses the relationship of the primitive emotional brain in humans to our higher brain in moral decision making. The higher brain is known as the Neocortex which takes up mosts of our hemispheres.
Just a quick mental picture: The farther away from the brain stem and spinal cord the more complex the brain function.
Okay now a real picture:
Basil Brain –(Closest and oldest) controls involuntary action
Limbic System –(Middle and middlest) center for emotional reaction
Neocortex –(Farthest and newest) center for rational thought and language
Haidt separates the morality into two areas, the gut instinct and the rational explanation. The Limbic System (developed before language) is the emotional decision maker immediately deciding right from wrong. Later the Neocortex kicks in and “the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.”
This explains everything!
Which brings me to my point: The ooky feeling. Imagine a solid country boy the biscuits and gravy type first encountering tofu. His reaction maybe fearful (What is that white square of mush going to do to me?) or angry (I worked hard all day to come home and eat this shit?) either way it stems from an initial emotion reaction to something unknown. Later when the rational language based reasoning turns he justifies his decision (God didn’t put us at the top of the food chain to eat vegetables). With repeated less threatening exposure to tofu we may see acceptance (well I am trying to watch my cholesterol and enough barbeque sauce will make it taste okay).
I’ve seen this ooky feeling as the cause of racism and homophobia. We’ve seen the initial reaction (man that guy is dark, and you want to stick it where?) the rationalization (dark skin is the mark of evil that comes from the descendants of Cain, and that kind of sex is unnatural and hated by God) But hopefully with repeated less threatening exposure (Martin Luther King Jr’s peaceful protest) we’ll see acceptance (I did enjoy Fresh Prince, and Will and Grace).
Now that we understand why we think of morality the way we do, its okay to change your mind. After all the Neocortex takes up two thirds of the brain larger than any other mammal, lets start using it.
Incidentally, Patricia McConnell suggests when introducing yourself to a wary dog you should stand a good distance away, slightly sideways, and cock your head in a curious way. Remember that when bringing home your opposite color, same sex partner for family gatherings.
Here is a list of sites related to Brain Study and Cognition and this post:
MIT: Primitive brain is ‘smarter’ than we think, MIT study shows
The Triune Brain
Diane Rehm Show: Archive Interview with Patricia McConnell
New York Times Article: Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written In Our Genes?