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King: How we use our brain sets us apart
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Use your brain!

No doubt you’ve heard this before. You’ve probably said it to someone yourself. (Most likely one of your kids.)

Use your brain, but which part of the brain? Once, this question wouldn’t have made much sense. Now, using magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists can watch as different parts of the brain turn on and off as it processes incoming messages.

We can actually see the brain receive a stimulus and form a response, and when the brain takes in information contrary to its owner’s preconditioning — strongly held cultural, religious or political beliefs — the brain registers discomfort and begins to rationalize the information away. It bypasses the area of the brain that deals in facts and moves to a part of the circuitry that make its owner feel better.

According to Professor Drew Westen of Emory University, it is the same part of the brain that makes drug addicts feel good about getting high. In other words, stress reduction takes precedent over rational thinking.

Consider the amount of stress in every day life today: the economy, global climate change, technology run amok, gonzo politics and round-the-clock news coverage that never lets you take an easy breath. It’s easy to see why there’s a lot of irrational thinking going on.

Fear can sharpen the senses, but it doesn’t always enhance our problem-solving abilities, and those who seek power are not above using our fears and anxieties to their own ends.

Think about this next time you hear a political speech. How many times does a politician promise to be tough on crime or illegal immigrants? How often do media pundits prey on our insecurities rather then appeal to our better nature?

Humans are primates, and you can learn a lot by observing our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. Anyone who studies the great apes knows that sex and power (the struggle for status within the group) are behind almost everything they do. But where chimps and other great apes are openly sexually, mankind hides behind cloth and closed doors. And when humans strive for power they hide their motive behind high-sounding words, but the drive is the same.

Those who long for power and prestige — and to some extent, this is all of us — don’t talk about it directly. They talk about service and "giving something back." Nevertheless, power itself is no more a bad thing than sex is. Orderly human interaction requires a hierarchy of some sort. It requires laws. It requires government.

We don’t need to guard against government as much as we need to guard against those, in government or out, who manipulate our weaknesses to advance their own agenda. We all harbor a degree of racism. It’s what allowed a few highly partisan individuals to keep schoolchildren from hearing a U.S. president speak to them about working hard and staying in school.

Observing our primate cousins can teach us something else: Altruism is as much a genetic trait as the lust for power or sex. It had its beginnings when mammals began to nurse their young. Any primatologist who has spent time watching the higher apes can recount numerous selfless acts not only within the group but across species as well.

Frans De Waal, in his book "Our Inner Ape," describes watching a bonobo, relative of the chimpanzee, pick up an injured bird, climb a tree and gently spread the bird’s wings in an attempt to get it to fly. When it fluttered to the ground, she descended and stood guard over the injured animal until it recovered and flew off.

There have been enough studies about violence and not enough about harmonious living. Listen carefully next time you hear a voice designed to stir your passions. If it is divisive, if it preys on your anxieties, turn it off.

Use your brain, but use it to solve problems, not to appease your prejudices.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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