Our Jigsaw Puzzle Brain
How we experience what we expect to experience and remain blind to the world as it is
During childhood the human brain is somewhat plastic. This is the period in our lives where we adapt to environmental cues of all kinds: we acquire our native language, we absorb the cultural norms, and we incorporate the local worldview. Once we reach puberty our capacity for adaptation decreases markedly and by the time we reach adulthood most of our hardwiring is complete. We become far less able to deal with novel sensory inputs; instead we attempt to map such inputs to already-known patterns. Our jigsaw-puzzle brain can only accept additional pieces that are the right shape to fit the existing patterns; we can’t cope with pieces that don’t match the shapes we’ve adapted to.
In other words, we don’t necessarily perceive what is out there in the real world; we perceive instead what we expect to be there. This is why beliefs and prejudices persist in the face of clear evidence to the contrary: our brain simply re-orders information to make it conform to existing patterns and discards information entirely where no fit is possible.
Our adult inability to perceive novel inputs ranges across many categories. It is why, for example, tribal societies rarely become democratic in the sense of the word Westerners would recognize. Tribal societies depend entirely on kinship relationships; it is therefore literally incomprehensible for people in tribal societies to conceive of voting for a non-tribe candidate. This would violate every aspect of social structure they understand. No matter how corrupt, stupid, and incompetent a candidate may be the only thing that matters is their kinship status. Hence tribal societies vote along tribal lines and the tribal leaders then attempt to agree on division of the spoils in proportion to their respective numerical strengths across the nation.
Lest we feel too superior, it is evident that the same general phenomenon occurs in the West; only in the West the clear lines of kinship are replaced by a near-substitute. We vote for people who seem to be like us. Hence stupid ignorant white racists vote for babbling xenophobic incompetents like Trump and Johnson. These repellent creatures may not be related to us by family ties but they appeal to us by being similar — in other words, they are our quasi-family members and we vote for them accordingly.
The inability of the adult human brain to deal with novel stimulus is why Brexiteers, for example, voted for massive self-harm. They simply cannot process the factual information that shows clearly how the UK is infinitely better off within the European Union. Instead, they default to simple-minded concepts that they grew up with: faded and wholly unrealistic notions of Empire, of “we stood alone against Hitler,” and all the other fabricated pseudo-patriotic nonsense peddled by the British entertainment industry for decades and absorbed uncritically by the uneducated and the cognitively limited.
We see less harmful but still highly illustrative examples of cognitive restriction in everyday life. Recently I was talking to a Brexiteer about some of the world’s spectacular scenery. She’d been to the USA and to parts of Europe so we had some common reference-points. I talked about my amazement at seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time; she said she’d been disappointed. “Just a hole in the ground, really; nothing special.” She’d been to Utah and driven through Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce, and Arches: “just a load of rocks.” Even the Swiss Alps in their jagged majesty evoked only a curt, “all right, I suppose, if you like that sort of thing.”
This woman, having grown up and spent all her life in southern England, had no patterns in her brain by means of which to perceive what she’d seen. If the Grand Canyon is like an enormous fireworks display, England is like one small candle flickering gently on a windowsill. As all of her conceptual apparatus was tuned to the dimensions of the candle, this Brexiteer simply couldn’t see the fireworks. She was figuratively blind to the wondrous scenery she’d encountered on her various travels.
Experiments with animals have shown that once the brain reaches a certain stage of development, anything missing can’t readily be added later. For example, if rats are brought up in environments comprising only vertical and horizontal lines, they don’t properly perceive diagonal lines. The neurons in the rats’ visual cortex that would normally fire in response to diagonals remain dormant. Even more striking, cats exposed only to vertical lines during the first weeks of life become totally blind to horizontal lines and never learn to see them no matter how much subsequent exposure they have.
We find a similar phenomenon with language. Anyone who’s tried to learn a foreign language in adulthood knows that certain sounds are simply too alien for easy processing. French people notoriously struggle with the English th sound, replacing it with z instead. Japanese speakers find it extremely difficult to distinguish between r and l. An English speaker trying to learn Russian will find it difficult to hear the difference between ш and щ. As for any European attempting to learn the clicks and guttural stops of Xhosa…
Even with something as basic as taste, conditioning plays an enormous role. People who grow up cramming McSlop and Kentucky Fried Cancer down their throats unwittingly hardwire their brains in such a way as to stop them being capable of processing more subtle stimuli. Fat, salt, and sugar are the principle tastes such people respond to and they are no more capable of appreciating a meal at Pierre Gagnaire than of becoming concert pianists.
The same phenomenon exists with sound. People who grow up listening only to pop music rarely retain the neural plasticity necessary to begin to hear more complex forms later in life. When one’s notion of music is a crude beat, a predictable melody, and a single voice shouting banalities, it is extremely difficult to process something subtle like a late Beethoven string quartet or the polyphonic choral delights of Taverner’s Missa Corona Spinea.
Does any of this matter? We evolved to adapt to our local environment and thereafter remain cognitively fixed. Surely that’s good enough even today?
The problem is that thanks to the inventions of a tiny number of clever people, we’ve created a world that is utterly different from the relatively simple environments to which we’re adapted. The challenges of the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia no longer pertain; the challenges we face today are complex and novel and they demand a neural plasticity we don’t possess.
Which is why human history is one long catalog of stupidities, blunders, and horrors.
It would be lovely, charming, delightful, and utterly beguiling to imagine that as a species we can magically free ourselves from our evolutionary hardwiring. Perhaps many years from now we’ll have amassed sufficient knowledge to be able to turn genes on and off and thereby bypass our current limitations. But for the foreseeable future in the real world, we’re trapped by evolution.
Consequently, we need to recognize and accept our fundamental limitations instead of pretending they don’t exist. Well-meaning educational programs, or a blind belief in the improvability of human nature, have always failed and will always founder on the rocks of harsh reality. So we need to stop pretending to ourselves and face up to facts: we’re a very limited species and our cognitive apparatus is ill-suited to the world we’ve created around us.
This has enormous implications across every aspect of human life. Our political systems are clearly unsuited for our condition. Our social systems (including mass media and social media) exacerbate our problems every minute of every day in order to chase financial rewards. Our judicial systems are misguided and our law-and-order organizations likewise based on mistaken ideas. Even our domestic relationships are out of line with what we’re really suited to.
While it is extremely unlikely we can effect any meaningful change to any of these elements, we can at least begin to accept that we’re stumbling along in a fog of misperceptions. Slowly, and inevitably unsurely, we must hope that a few people may begin to develop ideas that to some degree compensate for our mental limitations. Just as automotive engineers learned to install antilock brakes, airbags, crumple zones, impact cages, and lane departure warning systems in order to compensate for standard human incompetence, so on a social level we must hope that gradually we can engineer similar compensatory mechanisms to offset our fundamental cognitive limitations.
Because if not, we’ll continue to swerve off the road due to inattention and crash once again into the hard tree of reality. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years and, because our modern technologies amplify our folly, the consequences are growing worse with each passing day.