The occasion which really started my interest in the brain was Robert Ornstein’s book Multimind, which I read in 1986. Ornstein is a distinguished psychology professor, with many fine books to his name. Perhaps the one for which he will be remembered is his Psychology of Consciousness.
In Multimind, as I recall, he describes how we understand the world and our experience by choosing from one of the patterns which exist in our minds. The one which most immediately struck me was his remark that we use one pattern to judge other’s behaviour and another to judge our own.
Let me give you a small but true example. One hot summer my wife was complaining about a neighbour noisily playing pop music. I agreed with her. But a few days later I noticed (well, I couldn’t avoid noticing) that she had our hi fi playing at full volume. I asked her how she could do that in the light of her neighbour’s annoying habits. She said: “I’m playing Mozart. No one could possibly complain about that.”
(I would like to have given you an example of my inconsistency. But, you see, I am never inconsistent, though I am sure that you often are.)
What is the cause of this inconsistency? I note that it starts off when we are infants. You have all seen 5 year olds squabbling. Both are furious with what the other has done, and they escalate in a crescendo of accusations of “he did it first”, “she did it first”. The experienced grown up knows that nothing is going to be gained by an attempted judgment of Solomon. The only answer is to bring the escalation to an end by distraction, or to use force majeure.
The grown up philosophically hopes that, with maturity, the children will realise that they are each as bad as the other – their comforting illusion which pictures themselves as innocent and the other as guilty is just that – an illusion. And irrelevant. One day perhaps the children will recognise this and become skilled themselves in reducing the escalation.
That is a triumph of optimism. We see adult irrational escalations every day in society: for example, trade unions and management. Or, even more dangerously, the escalation of nuclear armament in the Cold War.
At the individual adult level we can see the psychological factors at work. The behaviour tends to be characteristic of people who have a strong sense of ego. This of course is a weakness: such an individual becomes over anxious and defensive. He or she needs to protect their ego by placing the blame elsewhere or, on other occasions, attempting to deal the final, crushing blow. Only it has a tendency to be neither final nor crushing – and the escalation continues.
There is likely to be another reason too. It appears in a study from the University of Toronto published in Cerebral Cortex in January this year. This shows that, while we judge the external world through our (cognitive) neocortex, we judge ourselves through our (emotional) limbic system. This latter system mediates to us our emotions and our fears.
We had thought that we were weighing the faults of our opponent fairly against our own. We had forgotten, or did not know, that we were using two different weighing machines – and the one we used for our own behaviour was deeply biased in our favour.
This is why a spectator can watch an escalating spat – and wonder how two intelligent people can proceed to damage themselves by such irrationality. Meanwhile the participants are tricked by the primitive part of the brain into believing that winning, or having the last word, is an essential defence of their whole person. Everyone loses.