How do you talk about the human brain? I just read a very interesting and timely article by David Ropiek called “The Problem of the Lazy Brain: The first step in confronting the ‘post-truth’ era is recognizing that we are all susceptible to lapses in critical thinking and motivated reasoning.” The author talks about how different people can take in the same raw information, like the color of someone’s dress, and perceive it differently. Or someone, like Mr. Trump, can assert something demonstrably false, yet people who follow him accept what he says as truth and surrender to him their power to think critically. How does this happen so easily? To combat the problem, Ropiek says, we must first understand it.
He goes on to say that “the brain is lazy. It instinctively works no harder than necessary…” Thinking critically takes more glucose and more effort. It is easier to accept uncritically than to critique. We reason only about things we are motivated to think about, for example about our own survival. Since we rely on a group to survive, we are most highly motivated to think in ways that reinforce our group’s social cohesion. We don’t accept information that counters our group’s beliefs. Thus, you can’t throw information, “facts,” at people who disagree with you in order to persuade them to change their viewpoint.
I agree with most of this but not the part about using the adjective ‘lazy’ to describe the brain. To say “the brain is lazy” is using a metaphor or conceptual framework that can undermine my own power. Brains are not lazy; people are. If I say the brain is lazy, I am saying I am lazy. To speak about “the brain” is to speak about this very mind, this very being writing and reading this essay. I am by profession a teacher, although mostly retired. If any teacher in my school called some student lazy, my ears would perk up to watch for some form of bias.
Saying “the brain is lazy” distorts the nature of the brain. In contrast, I think the brain is miraculous and powerful. Right now, my brain is hardly lazy. It is working on, engaged in thousands, maybe millions of tasks and processes. It is keeping me sitting up, awake, focused on my ideas, helping digest food, be warm, sense, breathe, etc. And add to that the amazing feat of somehow creating language, abstract ideas, and being involved in conscious awareness itself.
If I’m lazy by nature, then won’t I be lazy about everything I do, even trying to change? How can I change the world or change how I think if I’m lazy?
Each human being is both all human beings and totally unique. We all have characteristics developed through evolution, and characteristics developed through personal experience. We are all more alike than different. It is extremely helpful to know what these human characteristics are and how our own mind works. Ropiek’s discussion can be helpful in that regard, as in his discussion about the influence of motivation in perception. Human attention is limited, and thus selective. This enables us to focus. An illustration of this is “inattentional blindness,” where we miss something happening right in front of us because our attention is on a different stimulus. We are especially motivated to search the world for what might be dangerous or might threaten our understanding of the world, or what might cause pain—or bring pleasure. We pay particular attention to what’s new and unanticipated. Our default mode is to spend a good deal of thought time imagining, speaking to ourselves about the social world we are moment-by-moment constructing. We consciously consider one construct at a time, so it behooves all of us to do all we can to increase our ability to monitor and evaluate what we think about.
Our capacity for thought and imagination is actually so powerful that it can help or destroy us, cause immense joy or terrifying pain. Our brain constantly changes and learns. What we learn, or what we make of what we experience, the theories and beliefs we construct, affect our very perceptions, and how much we will learn in the future. That is how miraculous the brain and mind is; it certainly is not lazy. So we need to consider how we talk about ourselves so we can better hear what we, and the world, has to say.
**Photo is from Crete, of possibly the first paved road, in Europe, the world?