Please be advised that this post presupposes that science has value and can legitimately shed light on at least several things in this universe. This is no longer a given.
Lately there seems to be something of a rush to discover and reveal the real differences between Conservatives and Liberals. It’s a mean and meme world out there and there are plenty of pundits with a need to chime in on every tweety youtube trender that comes along, regardless of whether they know anything about it or not. Thus the recent spate of “Here’s the secret handshake of science” journalism that probably comes from certain so-called experts’ need to separate themselves from the glutted pack of a thousand points of sites. And there are plenty of new studies out there for these limelight addicts to reference.
We have the brain activity explanation, complete with those graphs and GIFs of brainwaves that folks are fond of displaying in their articles and on their blogs. Oft times well meaning but inadequately informed journalists will look to graphs to help flesh out their stories, especially if they are pretty. (The graphs that is). The brain wave explanations are so au courant and impressive but as with most speculative science those brain waves are subject to the classic query, “Nature or Nurture”. And, also as usual, I believe it’s some of both.
There is then the genetic proclivity explanation, with a different, more structural look at the brain. They often talk in science-ese, a bizarre language they use to keep us confused enough that they can keep their jobs. They talk about how this or that lobe or area of the brain is larger or smaller, or more or less developed. It gives them reason to declare that there are genetic proclivities towards certain influences and behaviors that predict our political tendencies. I think there is some merit to this point of view, but it is not a complete explanation. The fact that tradition shows us that most national elections, when push comes to shove, are decided by a relatively small margin. This balance references the fact that many brain functions have a binary, on or off, function. More on this later.
My particular preferred explanation for all this terminally intellectual stuff comes through the branch of Cognitive Science that is Cognitive Linguistics. It is on this subject that I will wax poetic, seemingly for the next several days.
Because our brain does not primarily use words to communicate with itself, but only to communicate with others, the development of language says everything about how humans communicate thoughts, ideas and concepts. The study of the brain and how it works speaks to us about the relationship between brain function and the way we use words. The science shows us that words can actually, physically change the brain. For me this reconciles other research being done by cognitive linguists about the influence of our brains on our politics, with the aforementioned purely physical reasons.
Cognitive science is a big deal these days. My opinion is that it grew simultaneously with and parallel to the quest to unlock the human genome. Curiosity is the engine behind scientific discovery, and as the technology to study and research both the physical functions of the brain and the body’s cellular level programming became more and more advanced, so did the drive to uncover the secrets of these heretofore mysterious and vitally important body parts.
What science is discovering is that the existence, outside of us, of a transcendent mind, which houses truth and reason, that we tap into to various degrees, to access universal meaning and conceptual reality, is a falsehood. Rationalists be damned, we are discovering that all human function is embodied in the brain. Not only does the brain control our typing and eyesight but our thinking and feeling.
One may ask, if all human thought is controlled by the individual brain and not an external static source, how is it that we have nearly universal acceptance of certain concepts. In essence that acceptance comes through experience and communication. Our thoughts are more pictorial than verbal. In fact, verbal communication is a limited, imperfect brain function, informed by the differences in individual human thought more so than any concrete construct. Agreement on the collective nature of things and ideas begged the question of what symbols to use to adequately and consistently communicate about things and ideas, between the ever larger sociopolitical and socioeconomic groups that evolved over time. Language became more and more important the larger the number of people we needed to talk to.
Words connect us with the pictures our brains use to simplify complex situations, concepts and functioning physical systems. Words are the triggers that bring entire groups of things and ideas into consciousness, from the unconscious, in one instantaneous moment. These verbally supported thought pictures define both what is and isn’t part of the communication at hand. For example, when one says the word “hospital” we immediately call up the words that trigger pictures of doctors and nurses and gurneys and IVs. Just that one word calls into our conscious minds an entire complex idea. The word also immediately references what is not in a hospital, i.e. a motorcycle or football. It cements a clear definition of the concept in our brain. Our brains do this as a shortcut. The brain processes millions of bits of information a second, and has an incredible amount of information in storage. In order to function quickly and efficiently it has to compress information dramatically in order to do this.
You may have heard the phrase ‘words have power’. This is more true than any of us ever imagined. Cognitive linguists are finding that words and the collective acceptance of their meaning cannot only influence people’s conceptualizations, but can actually change the brain. The brain learns and constantly changes to reflect that learning. Wanna learn how to hit a curveball? The more curveballs you try to hit the brain better remembers the group of complex physical responses that bring to the task both success and failure. Eventually it builds an express lane that more efficiently sets that entire process in motion the instant the eye sees what it recognizes as a curveball. We get better at hitting the curveball. The brain, over time, has learned how to make that entire quantum of processes respond more quickly and accurately, by physically changing its structure. The repetition has worn a “deeper’ neural pathway in the brain, from the seeing of the ball to the hitting of it. This better worn groove speeds up the process and enhances its effectiveness.
The desire for accomplishment and knowledge which leads to changing the brain does not only apply to physical performance but to conceptualization as well. If we are constantly exposed to a pervasive mental or emotional stimulus the brain learns which picture to call up, into the conscious mind, that the word, or grouped word metaphor, triggers. When dealing with a word that can have several meanings, repetition of the word trigger that points to the preferred definition determines which neural pathway becomes dominant. This now dominant pathway points us to that desired definition to the exclusion of others.
The brain can only assign one picture at a time to any given word. This is where the battle originates. Two opposing forces that support different meanings associated with a word, meanings called contested concepts, will fight over which meaning takes hold in the unconscious minds of the masses. The unconscious mind is where the meanings of words live. We could never hold the meanings of the several thousands words we know and use in our conscious minds minds all at the same time. The fight is over which picture comes into consciousness when the word is used and sets off the trigger. Establishing which meaning of the word is dominant is important because, as one address can’t be used for two homes at the same time, one word can’t point to two pictures at the same time. Their is a reason different definitions for a word in the dictionary are numbered. Pickle can’t mean a tasty, if salty, treat and a predicament concurrently.
Conservatives learned and accepted these ideas, putting their own frames around the pictures much earlier than liberals. They have gotten the jump on them in many areas of defining political ideas. In fact, to this day, many liberals consider as cheating the selling of the meanings of words to the public through repetition, by claiming opinion is truth, and by asserting their victimhood, etc.. They say manipulating the meanings of words is propaganda and against their principles. It is, of course, a type of propaganda, and as such is underhanded and vile, but we are in the middle of a war of words, a battle for the political hearts and minds of America. In war if you use inferior weapons, no matter how much you are loathe to use the better ones, you will almost always lose. And liberals are losing. Frankly, contests for the meanings of words take place every day in all disciplines. The irony here is that liberals often accuse conservatives of being more concerned with ideological purity than serving the people when, in this case, it is they who are being ideologically pure to their own detriment.
As usual I have gone way off the reservation here, but there is a method to my madness. People often read the end of articles first, to see what passes for a summary. So I often put the salient points toward the end. Maybe not the wisest thing to do, but I have never been accused of being particularly wise.
I have to put the difference between liberals and conservatives in here somewhere. So here are my salient points. All the folks who love to blame brain structure or brain wave activity or genetics for people’s political philosophies seem to forget that willful manipulation can actually change the brain. In some cases, to varying degrees, they are mistaking the effects for the causes. This often happens when one is looking to support a particular position and only delves as deep as the level where their evidence lives. It doesn’t mean their science is bad, it just means it’s incomplete and, thus, often inaccurate.
Earlier I mentioned that I feel genetics does play a role in a person’s values, fears, and perceptions, things that help forge our politics. I used the example of how close virtually all national level general elections are. But I’m not convinced that the ideological split is right down the middle. Few genetic proclivities, although based in binary sources, are exclusively black or white, on or off. On a dualist continuum there is not one exact place where X suddenly turns into Y but a gradual change from one value to its opposite. If you over-generalize, which for our purposes isn’t all that bad, one can claim that the division of dominance can be divided into thirds. X is dominant over 1/3 of the graph, Y dominates another third, and the hybrid Z, the gray, is prevalent in the middle third. One can see this is fairly true in political choice, as polls show, most often, on nearly any issue, that one third are conservative, one third are liberal and one third will not admit to being either.
This is where the framing of the pictures comes in. Electoral politics is the battle for that middle third. It is inaccurate to call these people moderates. They cannot honestly claim to be truly conservative or liberal because they find truth in elements of both philosophies. But when they are asked to choose, as in an election which only has two choices, they have been shown to choose by turning inward to their feelings about a candidate rather than his/her stance on the issues. So the definitions of the words used to describe candidates and their issues becomes vitally important. This is because the picture a candidate’s or party’s words elicit can influence a person’s feelings in a much different way than the speaker intends, based on the dominant definitions of the words that are triggered in that listener’s brain.
So, convincing that middle third to accept your definitions becomes the goal behind the goal. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this. Public opinion normally moves up and down in somewhat of a sine wave over time, but that doesn’t mean a skilled politician can’t manipulate the public’s feelings, to sell approval of their politics and not their opponent’s, regardless of prevailing trends. They can. in essence, be all things to all people. This duplicitous nature, normally attributed to all politicians often comes from their forked tongued efforts to appeal to all of the Z side of the triangle, and win the votes of everybody except that hard core one third of the other team.
In many ways elections are about using power to keep power. One particular application of political power is, to my mind, the reason why so many incumbents get reelected over and over again, even in the face of a predominantly negative feeling among voters that “we need to throw all the bums out”. This is the power of the incumbency. It is is reflected in the voting booth, where, faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils, a choice we are faced with much too often, we will vote for the incompetent idiot we know over the incompetent idiot we don’t know. That power can come from just a word, a familiar name. The familiarity doesn’t even need to be with an known individual. Here in Scandahoovian country, just having your name end in “son” can get you elected. This phenomenon is a type of scientifically explainable preference as well, just of a different kind.
Yes, there is a great deal of science in how a person behaves politically. But as long as humans use the imperfection of language to communicate the feelings of meanings, there will be a direct and imperfect relationship between the two. We can agree that red is red much easier than freedom is freedom, because the physical evidence of color that we all share allows for little contest in the meaning of red. Imperfection opens the door for falsehood. If the truth is not completely true then lies can appear to have an element of truth. And the political philosophy salesman only needs to get his foot in the door. He only has to establish plausibility to persuade. The meanings of words are one of the best tools he has in his tool belt.
It’s a shame our brains have to use our consciousness as a communications go between. Things could be so much clearer if we could just plug it to each other directly.
Maybe that’s why there is such a deep, ingrained fear in the human psyche that robots will eventually supplant us on top of the food chain. In fact, they don’t even need food.