Hopefully I can get over with it on march. -_-; I don’t want to go through ALL of this again and I’d rather not cram 2 SAT II’s in June.
Left Brain vs Right Brain and Other Myths About the Brain
Last night I ran across Mercedes-Benz’s newest cool-yet-so-cringe-worthy ad campaign. While the artwork itself is pretty damn awesome, the idea that our personalities and skills are a product of the prevalence of one hemisphere of our brain over another is rubbish. Another popular claim is the one that we only use 10% of our brains, while geniuses like Newton, Einstein, Michaelangelo and Da Vinci used much more. Yes, this one is rubbish too.
The ads read:
Left Brain: I am the left brain. I am a scientist. A mathematician. I love the familiar. I categorize. I am accurate. Linear. Analytical. Strategical. I am practical. Always in control. A master of words and language. Realistic. I calculate equations and play with numbers. I am order. I am logic. I know exactly who I am.
Right Brain: I am the right brain. I am creativity. A free spirit. I am passion. Yearning. Sensuality. I am the sound of roaring laughter. I am taste. The feeling of sand beneath bare feet. I am movement. Vivid colors. I am the urge to paint on an empty canvas. I am boundless imagination. Art. Poetry. I sense. I feel. I am everything I wanted to be.
I’m sure you’ve all heard this before. It is almost a part of pop-culture and it is often repeated in movies, the press, art-schools and ads for expensive, luxurious German automobiles, it seems.
The belief that a right-brained person is generally creative, inventive and artistic while a left-brained person is typically a logical, strategic puzzle-solver may have its roots in genuine science, but is ultimately nonsense. During the 1960s Nobel laureate Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga conducted experiments on “split brain” patients that demonstrated that the left and right hemispheres of the brain are specialized on different activities. The left hemisphere, for example, appears to take a leading role in speech while the right hemisphere takes care of musical and spatial perceptions. When you are drawing a map to your house so that friends know how to get to this weekend’s party, it is true that certain parts of the right hemisphere become more active. It is also true that damage to symmetrically opposed areas of the brain cause different problems (there is functional asymmetry in the brain). But to say that our personalities, interests and skills are determined by which side of the brain we “use more”, is complete hogwash.
The truth is that the way you behave and the way you think is much more complex than this left brain vs right brain dichotomy. The brain is a network of excitable cells or neurons that together as a whole, in conjunction with our senses and cultural influences create an image of the world and determine who we are. These cognitive functions and behavioral patterns require neural processes across the entirety of our brains. The very act of sitting here reading this blog while enjoying a cold beer is a good example of how nearly everyone uses the entirety of their brains every single day (Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck pose serious threats to the claim I just made, I am aware. That is why I said nearly everyone). As you sit in front of your computer reading this post your frontal lobes are working in reasoning and thinking. You are able to enjoy your beer thanks to your parietal lobes, which are responsible for the processing of nerve impulses related to the senses, like taste and smell. You are able to recognize the words on this page because your occipital lobes are engaged in processing what comes through your eyes. The neighbor’s dog’s barking is annoying you because your temporal lobes are processing and interpreting auditory stimuli. You haven’t fell from your chair because the cerebellum is busy in coordinating and balancing your bodily movements. You just took another sip of beer because your hypothalamus is making you thirsty. You have been blinking your eyes and taking breaths every few seconds without having to think about it because your brain stem is controlling all your involuntary functions. All while your metabolism and your hormones are being controlled by your pituitary gland. You will remember what you read because your hippocampus is constantly transferring short-term memory into long-term memory and you just realized how stupid the claims that one only uses 10% of the brain or uses one side more than the other really are while triggering function across a number of different areas in the process.
The science that backs up what I just said has been around for a long time now, so why do these pseudoscientific claims persist?
Well, I think that the way people see themselves and their shortcomings plays a very important role. They look at overachievers like Stephen Hawking and see this as evidence that the 10% claim is true. It might make some amount of sense, but that is irrelevant because the science just does not support it. Another reason, I think, is that psychics are using it to explain their ridiculous claims. They are able to speak to the dead, see the future or bend spoons with their minds because they are part of that exclusive élite that uses more grey matter than the rest of us poor bastards. While it might be true that the people pushing these myths forward do only use 10% of their brains, the rest of us happily use all 100% of ours every single day.
When I think of the irreducibility of stupidity -my own especially- I feel oppressed by the monumentality of it, its scale and scope and persistence. I’ve often quoted Errol Morris saying that “error is the central feature of human existence.” Or as Albert Einstein put it, “Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
I’ve been reading Avital Ronell’s Stupidity, a book which is far beyond my comprehension (for reasons having either to do with her, me, or both of us). I failed completely to understand another work of hers called The Telephone Book, the prose of which is so impenetrable for me that I feel genuinely moronic when I attempt to understand even a paragraph; again, this may be her fault or mine, but she’s a well-regarded writer and I think I likely lack the lexicon and analytical skills needed.
But parts of Stupidity are striking, and I thought I’d quote at length from its opening:
“Stupidity exceeds and undercuts materiality, runs loose, wins a few rounds, recedes, gets carried home in the clutch of denial—and returns. Essentially linked to the inexhaustible, stupidity is also that which fatigues knowledge and wears down history. From Schiller’s exasperated concession that even the gods cannot combat stupidity to Hannah Arendt’s frustrated effort, in a letter to Karl Jaspers, to determine the exact status and level of Adolf Eichmann’s Dummheit…stupidity has evinced a mute resistance to political urgency, an instance of unaccountable ethical hiatus. In fact, stupidity, purveyor of self-assured assertiveness, mutes just about everything that would seek to disturb its impervious hierarchies.
“Neither a pathology nor an index of moral default, stupidity is nonetheless linked to the most dangerous failures of human endeavor.”
Is she right? Remember: both knowledgeability and intelligence have willed and unwilled components (including: genetics, class, development, luck). If intelligence has a moral quality because of its impact on the participatory polity, then stupidity is a moral lapse due to its effects.
This means that whether stupidity is “willed” or not, whether it is the result of developmental aberrations or a lack of access to education or a lazy preference for partying or a poverty of inspiration or a resentful incuriosity, its negative impact on the public good makes it immoral. Whom shall we blame, morally, for stupidity?
Ronell includes in that paragraph, from her book Stupidity, a mention of Hannah Arendt’s frustrated effort to determine how stupid Adolf Eichmann was and what the effect of that stupidity really was on his deeds. The effort to assess how error affects “the most dangerous failures of human endeavor” reminds me of my favorite Errol Morris quote: “Error is the central feature of human existence.”
Errol Morris asserts, and I believe, that intelligence offers only very flimsy protection from error; I see much historical and contemporary evidence that it is nearly as likely -in some of its contortions, likelier- than stupidity to produce disaster.
“Lord, grant me chastity and continence…. only not yet.”
- St. Augustine (Confessions, 37 A.D)
Augustine’s struggle with lust, I had a little laugh after reading this.