Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Let Me Show You A Picture

…they showed people from various social strata some images of menacing faces. People whose parents had low social status exhibited more activation in the amygdala (the busy little part of the brain involved in fear and emotion) than people from high-status families. [David Brooks in a column on neuroscience in the New York Times October 13, 2009]
I find this sort of report delicious, especially when I discover exactly the conclusion I anticipate even as the factual build-up is still under way. Here are two conclusions that Brooks draws from several studies very much like the one outlined above:

  • Eventually their work [the neuroscientists’] could give us a clearer picture of what we mean by fuzzy words like ‘culture.’ It could also fill a hole in our understanding of ourselves.
  • The work demonstrates that we are awash in social signals, and any social science that treats individuals as discrete decision-making creatures is nonsense. But it also suggests that even though most of our reactions are fast and automatic, we still have free will and control.
I love it. The last citation is particular crisp and crunchy. The pressure of producing two weekly columns for the New York Times must be enormous and leave no time for rereading the text for logical consistency. Does the last quote mean that people are in fact not decision-making creatures or merely that they appear to be automata for the neuroscientist? If we are automata, how can be “still” have free will and control? Does the activation of the amygdala control what we do? Are we absolutely prostrate before the phenomena of fear and emotion? Are fear and emotion two discrete entities? Or is fear one of the emotions?

But let me now show you a picture. It is a motion picture of a man taking a dog on a walk through a wooded suburban neighborhood. It’s late fall, a gorgeous day. Suddenly the dog dashes forward, yipping like mad, going straight for a wooden fence you can’t see through, jerking the leash, almost choking herself, and acting as if she would chew her way right through those dense pine planks. It is Katie, the clan’s beagle. [Yes, Katie. I’m trying my best to promote you in these blogs. The other day I elevated you to the status of the Muse, today to the even higher status of a neuroscientist.] Katie had smelled a rabbit.

Now, of course, Katie could not chew through the fence because the man restrained her, made soothing, if totally ineffective calming sounds, and pulled the dog gradually away from the all-consuming object of passion that had gripped the animal.

Man and dog, in this picture, as seen from the Olympian distance of the neuroscientists—let’s say a woman three houses away looking out of a three-storey mansion’s highest window—are one system, to use an appropriately sophisticated modern word: let us call it a man-dog-system, or (all-right, all-right, already) a dog-man-system. Until that leash breaks, they’re certainly connected. Really deep analysis might actually detect that the system consists of two entities, not one, and that in this particular case one of the entities is on a higher level than the other and quite capable, with some effort, to be sure, in restraining the other.

If neuroscientists were required to study men taking beagles on a walk in a neighborhood thick with rabbits (my maximum sighting on a walk one fall was 19 rabbits in an hour)—and if they had undergraduate degrees in the classics, including the old staples of Plato, Aristotle, etc., etc., they could get on with their work on a higher level perhaps. But it might be that picking out pictures of menacing faces is as irresistible for them as rabbits are for Katie—as is wondering how the proles will react when they flash these on a screen.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting extension of the analogy: lacking rabbits that she can catch, Katie the Beagle seems to be quite taken lately with killing moles that she can and does catch in our yard while still on the leash.

    Make of it what you will.