I’ve been reading a bunch of secondary literature about neurobiology. It puts me in an interesting position: I know just enough about it to understand what it’s about and to spot when its basic findings are being misused, but that’s it. I have absolutely nothing constructive to contribute to a conversation on the subject, but I find it so interesting that I won’t shut up about it. So for once, I can actually blend in seamlessly with the majority of the public. Yay. Just wait until I get into quantum physics.
One of the most fascinating discoveries I’ve made is how neuroscience is being used to explain most things. Every time a human zigs when hindsight shows that they should have zagged, there’s a neuroscientific reason for that. I wasn’t surprised because the idea that our brains are poorly programmed is new to me, or because I was unaware that our psycho-emotional baggage creates ruts through which our thoughts tend to flow, guiding our actions. What really surprised me was that, apparently, neuroscientists kinda stay in their ruts, too. They are very clever people and get to play with some really cool toys, but they can’t be spending much time hanging out with the likes of me. If they did, they wouldn’t come to certain conclusions.
An example of this is the neuroscientific explanation for the sub-prime mortgage crisis. There’s a theory about it that I should be able to summarize for you, but I can’t, because I tuned it out. I was too busy thinking back about why I bought my first house, back in 2002-2003. At the time, banks were handing out mortgages and loans like they were candy, actively encouraging people like me (younger, with some savings and a relatively secure income) to speculate on the housing market. That wasn’t what motivated me, though; my decision was simply the answer to the following problem:
Your take-home income is £900 per month. Your unavoidable monthly expenses are £350 per month, and that doesn’t include budgeting for any kind of foreseeable expenditures (e.g. vehicle maintenance). Would you rather buy a house for £450 per month, or rent one for £550? And, by the way, your wages go up by 2% max per year, while the cost of housing is climbing at about 10 times that rate. So you better decide quickly, or you won’t be able to decide at all! TICK TOCK!
I’m not saying that neuroscientists are wrong, and that there isn’t a basic wiring fault in the human brain that makes people overestimate the significance of immediate gains while discounting long-term costs. I’m not saying that entrenched optimism can’t fuck people up, either. I’m just saying that, at the time, my hand was forced by my circumstances. I didn’t think buying a house was a great investment, or even a particularly good idea; I just have a strange fascination for sleeping indoors, particularly in the winter. I can’t be sure, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of people were in pretty much the same position as me, and did what they could to meet their immediate safety and security needs. And I find it truly shocking that there are people out there, clever people whose job it is to study other human beings, who are apparently wholly unaware of this.
It makes me think about how often I see people being exhorted to stay in their lanes. Plenty of people would argue that neuroscientists shouldn’t make pronouncements about economic issues, because they’re not qualified to do so. Plenty of other people would argue that of course they should, because neuroscience offers insights that could inform the field of economics. As I see it, the problem isn’t that neuroscientists aren’t staying in their lanes; it’s that they live in their lanes. They either don’t spend any time hanging out with people from different demographics, or they do, and they don’t listen to them.
The best example I know of this phenomenon is the marshmallow test. I can’t wrap my head around it, because, to me and mine, its basic premise is so obviously bogus that I can’t comprehend how the experiment ever saw the light of day. And it’s not that I’m a superior human being, with a brainpower so vast that I know better than trained psychologists: it’s just that I went to school in a pretty bad area of town. I lived alone with my mom, who liked sweets way more than I did. Most of our arguments related to treats consisted of her trying to get me to eat them, when I preferred fruit. All of my schoolmates came from larger families, and their home lives were very different from mine. My best friend had two older siblings and two older cousins who basically lived at her house, because their parents worked. Treats were rare at her house because, with one working parent feeding 5-7 people, there was no money for them. If she didn’t immediately eat what she was given, someone else would snatch it, and it wouldn’t get replaced. My other best friend lived with his grandparents, because his parents had fallen off various rails and couldn’t look after him. He had learnt at a very young age that the value of a promise made by a grown-up can be close to zero, even when that grown-up allegedly loves you. And as for trusting adult strangers, we’d all learned how bad an idea that was by playing at the local park.
I can tell you exactly how me and my two friends would have responded to the experiment: they would have eaten the marshmallows immediately, because for them that was the only way to make sure that they actually got a damn marshmallow. I wouldn’t have eaten mine, so I would have gotten two, and given them to my friends. And it wouldn’t have been out of kindness: I just hated marshmallows and was sick enough of having them shoved down my throat at home. Had the experiment been conducted with cherries, or the ability to go out and play for ten minutes, the results would have been radically different, and I would have “lost”. Had it been conducted when we were a bit older, I would have taken the marshmallow, the plate it stood on, and whatever was left in any unlocked drawers in that room, and waltzed out of there as fast as humanly possible so I could sell or redistribute my loot, because fuck the authorities.
I can only think of two ways in which the marshmallow experiment could have come into being: either nobody at Stanford shared my socioeconomic background, or the people who did didn’t get speaking parts. The result was a clusterfuck of an experiment which, although obviously laughable, was hailed as a major discovery and is still in the process of being dismantled.
I guess this kind of problem could be avoided by people staying in their lanes. Problem is, when you actually look at the real size of most people’s lanes, the result would be very little progress in any field. All of us come from somewhere, and most of us kinda stay there throughout our lives. If we listed all the specifics of what informs our experience, called that our lane, and stuck to it, we’d end up with a very narrow field indeed. More than that, we’d end up with a field that we can’t look at objectively, because we’re too damn close to it.
I wonder whether the opposite approach would work better: to wander wildly out of our lane while being painfully aware that we’re floundering through unknown territories. To keep our ears and eyes open not only to new realizations, but to being told that our realizations are bullshit because there’s just so much we don’t know yet. To be all-unknowing, and to embrace that; I bet that we could do a ton of learning that way. We probably wouldn’t get to write best-sellers about it, though, so I guess it’s a non-starter.