Category Archives: Life

If Politics is in the Gut, What Does That Mean for Democracy?

In the March 2019 issue, The Atlantic published a very interesting story about the differing reactions between liberals and conservatives to “disgusting” images. Summarizing a study by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, and his colleagues, the story reports that liberals and conservatives have measurably different responses to images such as “mutilated animals, filthy toilets, and faces covered with sores.” They found that, monitoring people’s reactions via MRIs, he could predict whether they were liberal or conservative with 95% accuracy. They further found that “conservatives tend to have more pronounced bodily responses than liberals when shown stomach-churning imagery.”

This is pretty amazing, if you ask me. It suggests that, to a large extent, our political views are not shaped by reasoned thought about the issues. Rather, they are strongly determined by neurological processes that we simply don’t control. “Gut reactions” to repulsive things. Regardless of which side of the proverbial aisle one sits on, if our beliefs are so strongly connected to primal reactions, what does that mean for democracy?

Democracy relies upon reasoned debate, with the goal of reaching compromise on complex issues. No one is ever fully satisfied, but to convince the other side to go along with your point of view, you have to persuade them that you have a solid argument. Debate is all about convincing the other side of your point of view. But, if your point of view is essentially a function of your gut, what is there really to convince them of? What is there to argue about? You can create arguments to support your belief, but that is building the scaffolding after you already have the core. Rather, informed debate should be about defending beliefs that you have based on reason. We shouldn’t be defending beliefs post-facto, but develop our beliefs based on the evidence around us. If our beliefs are founded on gut reactions, we are always going the wrong way.

To me, this has profound implications for democracy. We hope, that when our politicians are working, debating, arguing, fighting for something they believe in, even if they don’t agree with you or me, that at least they have strong reasons for their beliefs and that they are working to better society based on those beliefs. But, if they really don’t have any foundation for their views beyond their gut reaction, their neurological impulses, how solid can those beliefs and the subsequent arguments be? How well can they be tied to our best interests? If they are not based on evidence or reason, can they truly be the foundation of policy?

#heyjohnkelly

My dad came to this country without a high school education, having stopped going to school when he was about 14. When he arrived, he didn’t know a word of English. He died having never become a citizen of the United States. He came with a drive for a better life, to improve his lot. He brought a tremendous work ethic that was second-to-none. He instilled this work ethic in his three boys, who all obtained college degrees and have had very successful careers in highly technical fields — engineering, environmental science, and physics. How is my dad not the type of immigrant we want in this country?

Old Favorites through New Ears: The case of Black Happy

black-happy-pegheadBlack Happy was a band from northern Idaho, with some popularity in the early 1990s. Especially in northern Idaho, Moscow and the area more specifically. I must have drove my roommates in college completely insane with how much I listened to their CD Peghead. I listened to that thing over and over. When Black Happy broke up, I attended one of their last concerts, in Spokane I think (though it may have been Seattle after I moved there for grad school). They were even better live (not too many bands that can claim that), with people slam dancing pretty much the entire night. I went with a buddy who was significantly bigger (taller, stronger) than most and he got into the slam dancing. Maybe a little too much.

For me, the thing that made Black Happy distinct and special was the fast paced music, the fast lyrics, and the killer horn section that accompanied the more traditional guitar, bass, and drums.

I listened and listened to that CD, but never really listened to the lyrics. I recently pulled my CD out and gave it another “spin”, and listened a bit more carefully. Black Happy grew out of another band that was Christian metal. Not that I really knew that back when I was listening to Peghead so much. And maybe back then, in my college days, I really wouldn’t have cared.

I was more religious myself back then. I went to church regularly and even joined a Bible study group. However, with time, I just realized that, for me, religion held no answers. The answers I sought, to the big questions of the universe, always ended with “God” in religion, and that wasn’t satisfying. So, I moved on.

Today, I am a pretty liberal guy who isn’t at all religious. So, when I listen to the lyrics of songs like Bullmonkey, with their obvious religious and conservative undertones, my first reaction is┬ánegative. For example, Bullmonkey goes:

You think we’re livin’ in ’84
When you don’t know it’s sad and what’s more
Big Brother’s coming not blind or deaf
Didn’t you know he’s coming from the left

Clearly, they had some issues with liberal politics.

That said, when all is said and done, I can simply recognize the fact that these are some damn fine musicians, who played with more energy and passion than anyone in the top 40. Do I disagree with their politics, their world-view? Sure. But I can also just enjoy listening to some great music. Besides, I have more than enough songs in my playlist which represent the other side of the divide.

Life: A Poem

A child’s laugh fills the room,
fills our hearts.
Full of energy, full of adventure,
full of life.
In a split second, that voice, that laugh is gone.
Gone forever.
Forever silent.

Life is fragile.

The silence is maddening,
filling our hearts with despair.
Pulling us into darkness.
Into oblivion.

A child’s laugh pierces the silence,
pulls us back to the light.
Reminds us of love.
Of life.
In that laugh is all that was lost,
and all that still is.

Life endures.

With Great Power…

After Peter Parker is bitten by that radioactive spider, the first lesson he learns is that “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Society is constantly having to relearn this lesson, especially as technological advances give us more and more power in new and different realms. Harnessing the power of the atom has given us both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Medical advances have allowed us to extend life, even create life such as so-called test tube babies. Genetically modified food offers great hope to help feed the world but also the dangers of Franken-food. And the internet has revolutionized how we communicate, both for good and bad.

One of the next big frontiers of science is neuroscience, the science of the human brain. By understanding how the brain works, we are understanding more about how we function, why we behave the way we do, and what differentiates each of us. We are now at the point that we can, using a brain scan, know if we are looking at the brain of a psychopath or a normal person. If you think about it, this is tremendous power. This is probably as close as we will ever come to Minority Report, being able to tell if someone is likely a criminal before they ever do anything.

Think about it. If a psychopaths brain is truly different from the rest, a brain scan will identify who is a psychopath before they do anything to harm anyone. We would know if they have the potential for becoming a psychopath. And we might even be able to do that scan when they are a child.

Given that we could, in principle, do such a scan and identify potential psychopaths long before they become psychopathic, what should we do with that power? Should we scan everyone’s brains, and closely watch those that are likely to become psychopaths? This seems a huge infringement on personal liberty, but if it prevented the type of massacre that occurred in Norway, might it be worth it?

On the flip side, if psychopaths and other sociopaths truly have a different brain structure, how much of their actions are they really responsible for? If it is all brain chemistry controlled by genetics, should we all be thankful we have normal brains? Should we try to identify these people so we can find some way to treat them so they can lead normal lives?

And, finally, consider the fact that there is a very fine line between psychopathy and genius. Studies suggest many of the top CEOs exhibit psychopathic traits. If we somehow controlled the behavior of presumed psychopaths, would we be impacting other areas of society, including business and politics?

I have lots of questions and no answers. I think these types of questions will soon confront us. And technology is advancing at a pace that is much faster than at least our political and legal systems can keep up with. We will be faced with a future where people who barely understand the implications of the science, much less the science itself, are placed in a position of trying to address these questions. I think the sooner society as a whole dwells on them, the better able we will be able to deal with them.