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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 31 May 2012

Murder, Mind and the Social Matrix

First, a thanks to Warren Kinsella for posting this story (not gonna lie, I mine a lot of interesting stuff from his site).

This story speaks to a theme I have raised here time and again; people are not instinctively in control of their actions and more often than they realize, confabulate explanations for things they have done.

Is it logical to kick a police car when a camera is filming you?  Is it logical to deny saying something that has previously been recorded?  Is it logical to think you can hide behind an online pseudonym in this day and age where you can peel back layers to find pretty much anything you want?  Does it make sense to blab about breaking the law in an age of information sharing?

None of these things are logical, yet each one has been done and exposed on the grand stage.  And they’re still being done.  Some of the brightest strategic minds in the country are still painting themselves into corners, confabulating to themselves that it doesn’t matter, memories are short and they can spin themselves out of anything.


Why would police officers, charged with keeping the peace and serving the interests of justice, automatically assume a horrific story was just that and not pursue the matter further?  Why would our immigration minister suggest violence against minorities in Europe can’t be as bad as all that, despite the evidence and history that say otherwise?  Why would micromanagers continue to stifle employees despite the evidence that doing so negatively impacts the bottom line and encourages turnover?  Why would an organization committed to ending discrimination hyper-target a specific group and marginalize them?  From the other end of the spectrum – what causes people to confabulate delusions of conspiracy theories?

You might feel that none of these scenarios are connected; they are.  In each and every case, you have individuals making choices.  Each individual makes decisions using variations on the same hardware – their brains – that are impacted by genetic, biological and environmental factors.

Our brains are complex machines, wired into other complex machines (our bodies) which in turn are gears in an even grander machine – society.  Internal and external factors have significant impact on how our brains function cognitively; a lack of sleep or food impacts thought, external stress or joy can impact emotional content in thought, substances like caffeine or alcohol, or anti-depressants or stimulants, can equally impact what goes on in our noggins. 

Think of your car – what happens if you don’t wash it?  Rust.  What happens if you get your suspension out of alignment and don’t get it fixed?  What if the battery dies out, or you run out of gas?  What happens if a car that hasn’t been kept in good shape loses control on a busy highway?  The function of the machine and of the system of which it is a part is thrown out of equilibrium.  Better yet, think of the body; if you hurt one leg and are limping, that can impact your other leg, your spine and as such, your whole physical well-being  Our brains are part of that body.  Who we self-identify as; unique individuals, personalities, souls – are all products of this machine. 

If you think I’m stretching here, you’re in the same place as the police officers that didn’t take Renville seriously.  They were tired, they get lots of crank calls – they had established mental models that triggered a Pavolovian response when they registered an unfathomable possibility.  It doesn’t make sense to me, they said, so it can’t have happened.  Despite the ongoing reality of murder and the established reality of narcissists recording themselves performing criminal acts, the one officer decided to follow the cognitive path of least resistance – we can fake death, ergo this must be a faked death.

But it wasn’t fake, was it?   

I could go on and on with examples of limbic, reactive, defiant or protective behaviour that goes contrary to the facts.  I don’t need to, though, because you see them in the headlines every day.

Society is facing multiple challenges – the economy, jobs, healthcare costs, growing public resentment, an erosion of democracy and the rise of militant ethnocentrism.  Each one of these problems can be traced back to individuals who are unconsciously responding to stimuli and then confabulating justifications for their behaviour.  Which brings us back that fringe issue people talk about wanting to solve but really have no idea how to approach – the very reason that they aren’t treating it seriously, just like the officer who took Renville’s call.

That issue is cognitive function, reactive vs proactive thinkingmental health.  When we truly get what mental health, cognitive function and innovation are about, we can nurture the balance between thoughtfulness and action – but we can only get there if we’re doing it consciously.

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