The patterns of the brain

No, I do not intend to write about Brexit, but I am interested in the process of decision we had to undertake before the referendum. I wanted to make an intelligent choice but all I was getting was acres of conflicting opinions from soi-disant experts. In the end, and not until the day of voting, I made the choice which I thought would most benefit my grandchildren. This was an important decision but it reminds us that we all make decisions every day and several times a day.

How does our brain cope? It maximises its capacity to process information through a very efficient strategy: first, by recognizing new information which is important and by filtering out information which is unimportant; second, by comparing the new information with patterns already in the brain. These stored patterns provide our pre-packaged judgments, responses and attitudes: for example, our recognition of the characteristics of certain types of people or useful ways of behaving in particular situations. Some of these patterns appear to be common to human beings, and have probably developed through the needs of evolution; others have been developed through personal experience and others through genes. Throughout life we continue to tailor our own individual patterns as we encounter new situations.

While the brain needs to work this way, the method has its problems. Some of the inherited patterns are no longer appropriate for modern life, and there is no guarantee that the patterns we have developed ourselves are correct or correctly applied. Fortunately the rational human brain is able to override the patterns and check them for objective accuracy. But to do this we have to recognize that there is a pattern at work, and that we need time to think more deeply.

For example, how could our decisions concerning the opposite sex be affected by our patterns? We might start off with evolution: we inherit patterns which have developed over countless of years. Then we have a lifetime of living with the opposite sex – from our parents, our siblings, to our day to day observations and relationships.

Take the following list: Englishmen, Jews, Irishmen, homosexuals, Italians, West Indians, Muslims, atheists, Catholic Herald columnists. We may find that each of those groupings suggests characteristics – good and bad – to our pre-packaged minds. And this suggests that our judgments about members of the group we encounter are affected by our expectations. But stereotyping goes far beyond such well-defined groups; it could cover tall men, attractive blondes, university graduates, adolescents, homosexuals, musicians – and so on. We hold in our minds assumptions about scores of groupings which provide a starting pattern against which we make judgments about the individuals we meet.

Psychologists have field days about all this. For example many different studies have shown that we are more strongly motivated to avoid loss compared with an opportunity to make a gain. A recent study demonstrates that stimulating a part of the brain substantially increases the tendency to avoid loss or to escape dangers. We must assume that our level of fear, written into our brains, has proved important for survival. But it often leads to bad judgments.

So the world is divided into the great mass of people and the relatively few who take care to learn their own patterns. These are also likely to be good persuaders. This is because effective persuasion relies on our presenting the case in terms of the target’s internal patterns rather than our own. Then we are three quarters way there. For instance, when I wanted to get my wife to agree to a domestic change I was more successful when I spoke of the children’s needs rather than my own. No doubt she did the equivalent to me but my fond belief that I was always rational allowed me to ignore my existing patterns.

I once had a boss whose preeminent pattern appeared to be getting his name in the papers. When I presented a new strategy his acceptance depended on the probability of this outcome rather than the quality of the idea. But there was a penalty: he took the credit for beneficial changes rather than me. I have described before how those who wear spectacles are credited on average with twelve extra IQ points. Or that taller men have better chances of promotion than their shorter brothers.

And last, but by no means least, we are strongly influenced by the groups within which we naturally move. As a result of evolution, groups who were united in their values prospered though their corporate strength. And so today we are inclined to agree with the values of our companions. Pick up your newspaper any day and you will see the damage which is caused by internal discord within societies, and even within the Church.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment, Neuroscience. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The patterns of the brain

  1. John Thomas says:

    This article raises so many points one could comment on, but … here’s just one: “a lifetime of living with the opposite sex” – opposite? Some people (an increasing number?) would say there are several sexes, and by your grandchildren’s time, Quentin (which you mention) maybe their view will be enshrined in many things (Genesis notwithstanding).
    Certainly one has to stay constantly aware of any ‘stored thought patterns’ (such as prejudices) – but just as interesting as the subject of this article – indeed, more so, I fancy – is the idea we are reading about a lot, these days: that the brain might be permanently changed by our chosen actions/concerns, like a tendency to view lots of internet porn, or a tendency to give a lot to charity while denying ourselves (I try to give ‘bad’ and ‘good’ examples) … subject for a future article …?

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