Losing your free will to your beliefs

Textbook brain

Old patterns in our working brains could use rewiring from time to time. A decade ago, pop science asked if we were left brained or right brained. Now that question has been tweaked to: is your brain conservative or liberal? Conservative ideas are connected to strong emotions and spring from deep inside the brain from the region of the amygdala. While in liberal brains, parts of the anterior cingulate cortex light up, as these areas are involved in reasoning out conflicted issues. It could be that such partitioning will always be imperfect like everything else in life. We could be conservative about some things and liberal about others.

Often I come across readers and commenters indignant when newer analyses or younger readers find older, beloved works of literature or art to be racist or sexist. The year-end Christmas special of Sherlock Holmes: The Abominable Bride was trying to make up for the original, which had mostly minor submissive female characters dedicated to the male universe of Sherlock Holmes. As a young child, I would curl up with Conan Doyle’s stories with nary a consciousness that my gender was being excluded in some way. With dawning adulthood, I realised my existence had been circumscribed by way of gender, and that I could never be a Holmes or a Watson without upsetting or upending the world in which I lived. My society had chosen for me the limited role of Mrs Hudson.

When Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman came out last year, the revelations of racism in the book were distressing. It is hard to think of much-loved older books and films in this way, but think we must for the health of our working brains. We react to newer exposés of older works with indignation because we seem to be thinking with the emotion centres in the brain and not from a place of true discernment.

CAM01341So much of brain activity has to do with categorising the world in which we live. Categorising is a way of boxing up existence. It helps us navigate the shifting waters around us, but it also sets the world in stone in our heads. Do we choose in-groups and hostile out-groups using emotion or reasoned ideation? Take the human category of caste, for instance, a very Indian category. We live our lives in this country with strong notions of in-groups and out-groups. ‘Caste’ as a unit of social category has been dividing people into immured social groups for centuries. Although it is a stated social evil, caste divisions are so innocuous that these are not banished altogether from our lives. The problem is that in schools we learn one thing and at home another. In school, we learn that the caste system is a bad, bad thing. And at home, parents will be conducting initiation rites to anoint children into their especial caste and religious categories. This is an Indian paradox and routine to our way of life.

Children learn their caste and religious boxes very early, and are indoctrinated into a life of steadfast loyalty to their individual in-groups. This kind of early priming makes for conservative brains in adulthood. Science education can make only make so much of an impact on brains thus primed.

When India launched its mission to Mars a couple of years ago, a senior scientist told news cameras he had taken a replica of the rocket to a holy place and done all  the religious rituals to ensure the well-being of the mission. He didn’t seem to be aware of any inconsistencies in his world view. I would say this was an example of how early priming shows up in adult behaviour. But other people insist this is harmless hamming for the cameras for a mostly religious public who need to know that scientists are human like them and not aloof from the lay public’s fundamental creed. They believe there is no inconsistency in cultural beliefs coexisting with science. There are numerous examples of deeply religious people being brilliant mathematicians and science achievers. There lies the rub. If this is indeed the case, won’t such people eventually hit a wall in their inquiry when faced with fundamental questions? If you are so sure the world is one way, or if you have no doubt whatsoever, you end up losing your free will to your beliefs whatever those may be. When some answers begin to clash with your certainty, then what?

A lot of people feel aggrieved about the ‘all or nothing’ scientific outlook that does not make room for culture. This is because they are not able to distinguish where culture leaks into and impinges on the questioning mind essential for scientific inquiry. Drilled so early in life in cultural, religious and caste values, the scientific or questioning mind will play second fiddle to emotive allegiances—to culture, religion and caste. And this is not just the beginning of the end of science and inquiry, it is an end. When the groundwork for the conservative brain has been laid so early in life, the inquiring mind is lost or if it hasn’t been completely stamped out, it will be forced to push past cultural biases to get to the truth of the world. And that’s a lot of hard work.



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