“The Idiot Brain” and me ~ a review and some thoughts
Everyone likes a bargain, don’t they? When I was browsing the reviews of another book on the brain, a negative review of that book suggested that readers would find more of real use in Dean Burnett’s “The Idiot Brain”. Since the kindle version was on offer at that point (I recall it was 99p but I could be wrong), I snapped it up. You can read my Amazon review here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Idiot-Brain-Neuroscientist-Explains-Really/product-reviews/1783350822/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_ttl?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews&sortBy=recent#R2IXXQ0TD557Y0
I found it a light-hearted, easy read that was heavy on the humour (to the extent I guffawed out loud despite being in the process of slogging away on treadmill or static cycle) and relatively light on complex technical matters. There are enough of those to give the book credibility but not so many that you get bogged down trying to remember terms. For a broad overview of the complexities of the human brain this was a book that intrigued but did not frustrate; however, as with many such things, the areas that caught my especial interest were dealt with in too few words. Not the fault of the book, but rather the fault of the reader here, I suspect.
Around three quarters through the book, I found something that had me tripping over my own feet with the realisation that it described something I see on an almost daily basis. Having explained that the brain has an inherently egocentric bias, Burnett goes on to explain that part of the brain is dedicated to correcting this bias (largely an area called the right supramarginal gyrus) towards one of empathy. This area can be disrupted, and can be confused if a person has insufficient time to think about the issue. Data from various experiments show some of the limits of this correction mechanism and how it can happen. Using the method of exposing pairs of people to tactile surfaces that vary (they had to touch something nice or something gross), the experimenters showed that two people experiencing something nasty will be very good at empathising correctly, recognising the intensity of feeling and the emotions of the other person. But, if one is experiencing pleasant things while the other is experiencing the opposite, the person experiencing pleasure will vastly underestimate the suffering of the other person. Burnett concludes that, “So the more privileged and comfortable someone’s life is, the harder it is for them to appreciate the needs and issues of those worse off. But as long as we don’t do something stupid like putting the most pampered people in charge of running countries, we should be OK.” Did I mention that Burnett is also a stand-up comedian?
I am sure you have witnessed this sort of blindness, especially if you are affected by one of the many conditions/illnesses which have no obvious visual marker, the so-called invisible illnesses. On a personal level, it’s bad enough, but on a national and international level it’s catastrophic. Witness in the UK the number of seriously ill and suffering people that the DWP have decided are fit for work. Burnett has just explained, though, how this level of atrocity can take place, especially in people who would ordinarily consider themselves decent, compassionate people.
Related and equally insightful is Burnett’s exploration of the brain’s other cognitive bias, called the “just world” hypothesis. It argues that the brain assumes that the world is fair, that good behaviour is rewarded and bad is punished. There are social reasons why this idea has evolved; it aids in the smooth running of communities. Indeed, various apes and monkeys have been shown to adhere to this hypothesis (though Burnett does not mention this). It’s seen to be a motivating factor, for if you believe that existence is random and all our actions are meaningless, it’s going to make it hard for you to function at times.
Of course, the world isn’t fair or just. Bad things happen to good people, as we’ve all observed, and bad people get away with bad things. This sets up a dissonance in our brains, because the fair world hypothesis is deeply ingrained, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, our brains come up with one of two things: first is the idea that the victim of something nasty must somehow have done something to deserve it. The second is that the world is cruel and random after all (something I am tending very much towards.)
Burnett also goes on to explain that people are more inclined to blame a victim if the victim is someone they can potentially identify with strongly. There’s complex reasons for this but in essence it boils down to fear. A fear that if someone who is essentially the same sort of person as you can have something that horrible happen to them it must be their fault in some way, because if it could happen to them (ie, random chance) then it could just as easily be YOU.
In my experience, this has been something that faith groups are very, very prone to; the idea of secret sin, of someone actually deserving to be punished by horrible things occurring to them, is one of the most damaging and hideous things. The tendency to blame the victim is so common among various wings of the Christian church, I suspect it’s one of the reasons many walk away. At university, a close friend’s mum was dying of cancer; the family church accused the family of some undisclosed sin they needed to repent of, and when she died, they told the two sons that they had not prayed hard enough for her to be healed.
At the end of this chapter, Burnett concludes with this rather scalding paragraph: “It seems that, despite all the inclinations towards being sociable and friendly, our brain is so concerned with preserving a sense of identity and peace of mind that it makes us willing to screw over anyone and anything that could endanger this. Charming.” It may seem unduly pessimistic but I can only agree with him that the human brain is flawed. It’s the spirit and soul that must mitigate against these flaws.
Sounds a very interesting read, and your final point is spot on: if our selfish brain is liable to tend towards selfishness and apathy then it is up to the rest of our being to override that ancient drive and move towards empathy.
Very insightful and thought-provoking piece Viv…
Very interesting review, Viv – and I think it sounds a fascinating book. As soon as we stopped having politicians from working class families on the front benches, the gulf between the have and have-nots has just yawned…