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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Juan Williams and our reptilian brains

The furor over Juan Williams remarks and his subsequent dismissal from NPR is finally settling down. I have given the events some thought and being the contrarian that I am, I thought I should weigh in with a contrarian opinion. I think I understand the genesis of  of Mr. Williams thoughts and comments regarding his fears. Oddly enough, I suspect that the response of the President of NPR is likely to be explained by the same mechanism which generated Mr. Williams remarks.

Because of my interest in how doctors and patients perceive and respond to risk, I have delved into the works of a number of authors who publish primarily outside the realm of medicine and health care. Two particular works, "Risk" by Dan Gardner, and "How we Decide" by Jonas Lehrer deserve highlighting. Although each book has a different focus, both highlight elements of the human brain and human decision making which are extremely relevant to the Juan Williams brouhaha.

Human brains are millions of years in the making and our cognitive functions are built on a platform which is not particularly linear or rational. The rational and deliberate part of our brains is only part of the story. The more ancient and sometime referred to "reptilian" brain operates in each of us and its functioning and continues to serve vital functions in our day to day existence. We care constantly placed in positions where we must make judgments. Some of those judgments require thoughtful deliberation and weighing of all the data. Some require a quick assessment and reliance on gut feeling to decide.

In Jonas Lehrer 's book, he describes the decision of a radar operator in the Persian Gulf who sees echoes on a screen and is forced to make a rapid decision as to whether they represent a friendly A6 attack fighter or attacking missile. He has little time to weigh all the data, only time to look at the echoes and intuitively make a decision. He decides that the echoes represent a hostile missile and correctly so. He accomplishes the feat, using a phylogenetically ancient system, common to  gazelles at the watering hole, sensing of a cheetah is nearby. This system can process lots of information without us actually being consciously aware of all of it. This has been referred to as system 1 or "gut".

System two is the more deliberative system. Gardner refers to this as "head". Head is more plodding and methodical. Head is data driven and rational. Some problems appear best addressed with the rational plodding approach while others are more amenable to intuition (think of Malcolm Gladwell and "Blink"). Most decisions require input from both systems.

When Juan Williams remarked on the fear he sensed when he saw someone in Muslim garb on a plane he was boarding, he was simply recognizing that system 1 was activated. The reptilian portion of his brain was firing off in a similar pattern as our ancestors when they came down to the watering hole and their hair stood up on end if they sensed a predator near by. We all have those moments, perhaps walking down on dark street or entering into a neighborhood where you do not know anyone and perhaps people look different from you. We can't help but have these feelings. They are system 1 talking to us. We can not turn this off, nor apparently should we want to. System 1 is an integral part of our decision making apparatus.  Lehrer descries the fate on one patient who post brain surgery became essentially devoid of emotion and also lost his ability to make decisions.

We are not entirely rational creatures and it is crazy for someone to be disciplined for acknowledging that he has fears that he cannot fully explain. We all have fears which derive from system 1 and all we can expect is that we do not act rashly on all of them. I suspect it is in the long run desirable to reflect upon them and share them with others. Juan Williams was open and honest about his fears but did not act upon them. I suspect that if we scanned Vivian Shiller's brain and saw the predominant structures activated when she decided to Fire Juan Williams, we would find she was driven to react mal-adaptively more by gut than head. Her reptilian brain also got her in trouble.   

1 comment:

  1. Most of us, including those on the left, know that NPR shamed itself. Shiller's comments were reprehensible. I suspect that there are many other 'journalists' who routinely editorialize and are not punished for it. Had Juan issues a nuanced derogatory comment about the tea party, he might have been promoted, not fired. Juan out-'Foxed' them.