The content of this webpage, and everything associated with this webpage, is independent of the Peace Corps and the United States Government, though I think they should read it too. This blog solely reflects the experiences and observations of Jake DeBerry.

Friday, June 12, 2009

our silly brain

Warning: This blog is longer than usual and you may get defensive...

There are many problems within development work. Some of the most obvious difficulties stem from the setting: a 'development agency' tries to influence/change the lifestyles/habits of a different region, while both have different native languages, different cultures, different values, different beliefs, and different perspectives…and sometimes, different goals.

Another problem with development work is also a problem with any kind of work dealing with people anywhere in the world...the people themselves. The brain is not a very logical or rational organ. It has evolved over millions and millions of years to function in a very different lifestyle than the one that has come about since agriculture (about 10,000 years ago) and thus larger communities. Fear and emotions are based deeper in the root of the brain, making them the bosses of our behavior when evoked – overruling good sense or a rational/logical thought process.

How the brain works is this: you often already know what you want to believe…regardless of its validity (you know what you want to believe due to a mixture of your genes at birth, your upbringing, and adulthood experiences). Then, your brain sets out to prove why that is right, regardless of whether it is…meanwhile you can fool yourself into thinking you're being objective. You accept the data/information your brain receives, large and small, that agrees with your stance and it reinforces your beliefs - and you dismiss information that disagrees or you justify why you're still right despite that information. If the topic under debate is not anything too personal you'll notice the information that disagrees with your belief more readily…you can't argue, for instance, about whether it's raining or if a dress is red or that an elephant is bigger than you.

However…the moral intuitions you have about your representation of the world and your representation of yourself in the world (self-identity) are unlikely to be influenced by much evidence. You have to train your brain to be objective and look for information before you make up your mind and train yourself to change your mind even if it goes against what you want to believe…which people do not naturally do.

That's why education and reading good books is so important – because it trains our brain to think more objectively, it introduces us to ideas different from our own, forces us to analyze our own beliefs, it trains us to look at evidence when deciding upon something instead of deciding and then seeking evidence, and it alerts us to how little we actually know. It also teaches us to question those things we were told growing up that we accepted because we were kids or those things we 'feel'. Feelings in some cases are good – for instance reading non-verbal behavior in humans, our intuition is usually pretty good…but that's about where it stops. Feelings about other things are usually wrong…but it's okay to be wrong – being proven wrong should be viewed as enlightening instead of belittling.

One of the things I dislike about our culture is that being 'wrong' is looked at as a character flaw when it should be viewed as a positive thing as long as you're willing to change your mind. Our confidence and self-esteem are shaken when we're wrong. But if you're wrong, you just learned something, and that's what we want to be doing, putting our ideas out there and learning.

Religions of today and of the past are probably the easiest example, and the most fun for me to discuss, because it's the one area of life that will not even admit of the possibility of correction. In this instance, I'll briefly mention Christianity because most people reading this would agree with me if I were picking on Islam or Mormons and I like to cause a stir (interesting observation is how people make fun of other religions that are just as far-fetched as their own…the strongest correlation of what determines your religion is simply where you were born/what religion you were born into).

The theory of evolution, for instance, is supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence…every speck we have points to evolution (if you have something that doesn't, send it to me please)…so much evidence that anytime someone wants to argue creationism I feel like I'm arguing with a kid that hasn't done their reading or has a mental block against things they don't want to hear. But over a third of America's population doesn't want to accept it because a book written by people thousands of years ago that says you can sell your daughter into slavery or that you can't touch your wife while she is menstruating or that all the land animals were saved from a flood by going to hang out with Noah or that has a loving God destroying cities and having Moses enslave young girls while killing all the young boys also says that "God" created the world in 7 days and implies it's younger than 10,000 years…and that's the only support for that theory. If the bible said that things fall to the ground because God is actually in the center of the earth holding us to it then people would disagree with the theory of gravity (that all things with mass have a gravitational pull). Luckily, that wasn't included in the bible or Newton would be cast in the same shadow in America as Darwin.

Another example is that we know a virgin birth is impossible, or all evidence points to its extreme unlikelihood in our species. But virgin births seemed to happen frequently when the masses couldn't read or write, when language was yet to be standardized, and when people still thought the world was flat and didn't move…but people will believe it anyhow. Many scholars are pointing out that the passage in the bible with 'virgin' in regards to Mary is more appropriately translated to "young woman" (the word is 'almah') and that the resurrection was added years after it was all written…but something like that still won't influence most people's beliefs. Religion is engrained from childhood and constantly reinforced in our environment…unquestioned faith is seen as a virtue and people don't like changing their mind about something so personal. Growing up and in college, I was a Christian…now I think I was wrong all that time.

Look at how Christians, Muslims, and other religious people of 'peace' find it so easy to be cruel to one another. Look at how long it took for white men to view blacks and women as their equals (and in many places around the world and in the U.S. it still hasn't happened). Look at how long in Europe people were killed for disagreeing with religion or the state (I would certainly have been burned at the stake back then). Look at the struggles homosexuals have even when all evidence points to homosexuality being decided upon in the womb…it's not a "choice". Look at how many people thought the gods lived on Mt. Olympus and Athena sprung from the head of Zeus. Look at how many Americans think America is a "Christian nation" when the founding fathers very clearly wrote "America was not founded as a Christian nation" and men like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were deists, not Christians. Look at the Muslim world today and how many people believe that you have to kill your daughter/sister if someone rapes her, or that apostates should be killed, or that a woman's vote is half of a man's meanwhile their prophet wed an 8 year old girl and thought he saw an angel while baking in a cave in the desert…couldn't just have been delusional. Our beliefs, regardless of how wrong, immoral, or far-fetched they may be, are not easily changed and we can justify just about anything we do. Al Capone thought he was helping the community. Fredrick Douglas commented that the most religious slave-owners were also the most vicious. Lincoln commented how each side of the civil war thought that 'God' was on their side. Our brain's incompetence in being reasonable is just one part of the problem…but it's a big part.

In most religious and political conversations, people are unable to think objectively about their religion or political stance because it is a very personal topic and we get defensive, then emotional – and that blocks any rational thought (I include myself in that as well…though I'm getting better). Those topics deal with our self-identity and once you believe something to be true, regardless of whether it is, you will be able to make the argument to support your desire and it will take an overwhelming amount of evidence to change your mind…if your mind can be influenced at all. If the Republican Party would have gotten around to saying Barack Obama was a Muslim before most people knew he wasn't, Obama would have had a more difficult time. Similar to John Kerry in '04 – most people saw information that he was a coward first…when in fact, he was much braver than his opponents, but the damage was already done and he wasn't able to overcome that first belief people had about him as being weak-kneed and an opportunist.

In most developing countries, the education level is horrendous (the USA isn't that far ahead either); most people don't know how to think objectively. When you don't have much of an education, or live in an area that doesn't get much outside influence, or live in a very conservative area where differing thoughts are not welcome, even the simplest ideas you have are unlikely to be altered. The other day I heard a guy who works at a drug store tell a woman not to feed her sick son oranges, bananas, or other fruits until he gets better. I quickly stepped in, speaking as politely as I could so I wouldn't make them defensive, that my doctor told me that fruits are good for us because it has the vitamins we need to get better. Then the pharmacist tried to explain why – and it was completely ridiculous. I doubt she listened to me.

The way to change people's beliefs is not through logic, because most people don't respond to logic or reason. They have their beliefs, perspectives, and idea of why things are and that won't change because it deals with self-identity, which is very fragile. The way to accepting other perspectives, possibly influencing them, as corny as it sounds, is through the heart. It's to break down the 'me vs. them' barrier when discussing sensitive topics.

A great example of this was mentioned in the New York Times: [“Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says. “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.” Thus persuasion may be most effective when built on human interactions. Gay rights were probably advanced largely by the public’s growing awareness of friends and family members who were gay.]

One of the reasons Peace Corps is a great social development organization is due to the fact that we stay in one community for 2 years – that is plenty of time to get to know each other. When you care for a person, you're more likely to listen to what they have to say and while they may not change your mind, their differences become more accepted. Once the differences become more accepted, as people, we're more likely to alter our ideas and beliefs. The people where I live have gotten to know me personally and ask me questions about America, food, the economy, swine flu, etc. They listen to me and I listen to them. They no longer think all Americans want war with everyone or that we all eat from cans. Progress.

This blog is longer than usual and it's a bit scattered...but thanks for reading. If you have thoughts/opinions/arguments, I'd love to hear it. I'm a big fan of mental sparring; I think it's healthy as long as each side doesn't take it personally – we're all after a clearer truth and a more peaceful society. There is always a lot we can learn from each other. Being down here, I'm not able to participate as much as I could back home in debates…especially since most Peace Corps volunteers share similar views (about politics at least).

Much love,
Jake

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