Why Don't New Facts Cure Old Fears?
The mental mechanics of how emotions and logic relate aren't widely understood. Our minds are built to mostly be "indirectly rational."
Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur, inventor and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.com. That explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
How do our fears work? Can we trust new facts to cure old fears? Our minds aren’t built that way.
1. Fear can be useful (“the mother of safety”) or delusional = ideal for examining the often misunderstood mental mechanics of emotions and logic.
3. Bone-deep fear fuels Ta-nehisi Coates’ latest book. His childhood streets were an “array of lethal puzzles.” He feared “those who loved him most.” His father felt “either I can beat him or the police.” All that fear bred violence. It still shapes Coates’ worldview.
5. Our “indirect rationality” means facts usually can’t cure false fears directly or quickly.
6. Feeling IS fast thinking. Per Daniel Kahneman’s two-mind framework, “System 1” generates feelings = rapid, reflex reactions; “System 2” deliberates, consciously, slowly.
7. System 1 does its thing first. Then System 2 kicks in, usually using System 1’s output. Whatever explicit facts System 2 gets, they’re framed by System 1’s separate (“hidden brain”) learning system, which constantly, unconsciously, collects the patterns of your anecdotal unstatistical environment (making toddlers and liberal pundits react like racists).
8. “Rational choice” thinkers typically believe emotions cause irrationality. Reason must overrule emotion’s errors, and better facts ensure better actions (hence nutrition labels, largely ineffective).
10. Feelings process sensory inputs by a logic — your culture’s emotional grammar, your childhood’s patterns, your subsequent psychology. Coates’ book lays out his fearful logic.
11. Conscious thinking usually has emotional goals (to feel good/right). And thoughts can be incoherent (e.g., Robinson questions “a well-regulated militia” meaning guns for all). Plus what’s called rational can be unrealistic or ridiculously self-destructive.
12. David Hume’s "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” gets the mechanics right, but needs modification. System 2 reason starts from our feelings, preferences, biases, assumptions ... but System 2 can retrain System 1 reactions = reason reshaping passions.
13. Surely better models of our nature should be habit driven (like us). We evolved to often act without consciously deciding, using System 1 habits. We can be rational (actions matching aims) indirectly, when acquiring System 1 patterns. They’ll then be automatically triggered, mindlessly repeated, often. Altering (second-nature) habits requires slow, hard retraining.
14. Trust can mitigate or multiply fears. We often don’t or can’t think for ourselves, instead relying on trusted others. If leaders say “quantitative easing” or immigration harms the economy, who has the time or expertise to verify?
15. Harmful trust/fear patterns have hardened into cultural/institutional habits. Why let politicians routinely lie, when lies to sell products are illegal? Is the integrity of donuts or democracy more important?
Fears arise first and fast. They change slowly. How we organize fear shapes us (politically + privately).
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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