Wednesday, July 31, 2013

This is your Brain on FoxNews

'Poached Scrambled eggs in the pot' photo (c) 2006, Seth Anderson - license: you grew up in the 90’s, you likely remember the commercials warning of illegal drugs turning your brain to mush if you used them.  Well, turns out drugs aren’t the only things that can turn our brains to mush. Recently there was a story on NPR regarding the power of personally held stereotypes to shape our perception of life. In particularly, the research was emphasizing the problems racial stereotypes cause in real life. While obvious hate-filled racism is less mainstream thankfully—though certainly exists below the surface—it is this stereotypical racism that plays out in much subtler, yet equally dangerous ways.  And perhaps this racism is even more dangerous than the obvious hatred of the Klu Klux Klan or white supremacists groups. This racism is often oblivious even to the person who holds the racist biased.  One can therefore proudly proclaim to be free of bias and prejudice while almost unconsciously holding to prejudicial stereotypes.

One example of this is from the documentary film Freakanomics, where Morgan Spurlock describes sending out identical resumes to job seekers, the only difference being that one copy would have a name that sounded “white,” and the other “black.”  Spurlock found that the “white” sounding name received call-backs far more often.   I’m sure we can all think of less troublesome racial stereotypes, like white men can’t jump, or blacks have natural rhythm.  I’m sure many of us can also think of much more troubling stereotypes.

Stereotypes are helpful in some ways. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I imagine a scientist would say that the brain developed the ability to stereotype so as to know when to flee from potential danger.  Seconds probably meant the difference between life and death, so every second could be the difference between life and death.  It’s not necessarily that stereotypes are always bad, or always wrong.  Financial experts stereotype by warning us that letters from foreign nationals telling us we’ve won a lottery are always a scam.  My mother stereotyped in advising me “that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  Yet, stereotypes often have a dark, sinister side that we don’t always notice firsthand.  Stereotypes such as “welfare recipients are lazy,” “rich people are all selfish and greedy,” and as recent events remind us, “black males in hoodies are dangerous.” Yes, guilty verdict or not, Trayvon Martin would still be alive today if he had not been negatively racially stereotyped. 

The real problem with stereotypes is that they simple reinforce our previously held beliefs, to the point where they become self-fulfilling.  If I think black males in hoodies are troublemakers, I’m going to track down and harass a teenager armed with a bag of skittles—even when the police tell me not to—because  he’s “suspicious,” “up to no good, ” and an “asshole.” This is a key element of Systems Theory, a framework for understanding human behavior, which points out that human beings tend to notice things that reinforce one’s current beliefs. We all like to think we’re keen observers, but in reality we only see what we already think exists. 

Author Jesse Rice shares a story of a social experiment done by the BBC TV series Horizon. Six people agreed to subject themselves to 48 hours of sensory deprivation , placed in pitch black rooms, clothed in thick clothes and gloves, and adorned with frosted goggles and white-noise playing earphones.  Having their mental functions tested prior to beginning the experiment, the isolation soon gave way to serious cognitive impairment with participants imagining sights, sounds, and senses that were not real. The observation was made that cut off from connection, humans’ ability to make sense of the world and deal with reality quickly breaks down.

'Fox News GOP Merger - Faux News' photo (c) 2007, New England Secession - license: what’s the point? Our brain needs to be constantly presented with new ideas and information in order to not fall into locked-in stereotypes.  “Just as neural pathways form in our brain as a result of stimulation, there is now research to show that the opposite may also be true. If the brain does not get the stimulation it needs, it begins to turn to mush.”  Is it then any surprise that the avid Fox News watcher thinks that President Obama is some socialist intent on handing out their money to entitlement moochers via government programs? No, their brain has essentially turned to “mush.”  Having subjected itself to the same stimuli (AKA GOP Propaganda)over and over again, with the tendency to only see self-fulfilling examples, their brain essentially loses the ability to reason, relying only on preconceived stereotypes, oblivious to logic.

It is ESSENTIAL then to constantly be seeking out and encountering new mental stimuli.  To purposefully expose oneself to ideas and influences that fly in that face of one’s currently held beliefs. One of the researchers from the NPR story told of the powerful effect an image had on herself, challenging her own preconceived ideas, that of a female construction worker breast-feeding her child on her lunch break.  Constantly challenging our brain is like lifting weights for our muscles. If we don’t want our brains to turn into a stereotypical mush, unable to think beyond our own ideas or opinions—we’ve got to be always open to new ideas and opinions. 

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