Brain Rigidity

by Joel on July 25, 2004

For many years, I bought gasoline at my neighborhood Exxon station. It was an independent station, though, so its owner wasn’t bound to continue that brand affiliation. About a year ago, the station owner decided to switch brand loyalty to Phillips 66. That change has made no difference to my pocket book, but my brain can’t seem to adjust. Several times, when asked to give other people directions, I have told them to make a turn this way or that way from the station, except that I keep referring to it as “Exxon.” I’m sure I have confused many people with my mistake.

That got me to thinking. On the one hand, the brain finds it very efficient to seal certain things in memory. It saves us a lot of time, making it easy to recall things without having to ponder very hard. But it can also lead to a certain rigidity of thinking. When we go from an auto that has the shift at the wheel to one that is on the floorboard, we might find ourselves temporarily reaching for the wrong place. After all, the brain desires some efficiency and doesn’t want to waste time on rote choices.

How are we when we come to our religious and political views? At a younger age, and until I was around the age of 40 or so, I held pretty firmly to the view that the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment on the right to bear arms related to militias only and didn’t guarantee the rights of individual gun owners. I don’t hold to that view, anymore. I should add, perhaps, that neither do I subscribe to the absolutist position of the National Rifle Association.

It was hard for my brain to make the adjustment. I had been both sickened and saddened by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In the years following those deaths, I had become convinced that the American problem was too many guns. When I changed views, I didn’t just go over to the “law and order” side, for I believe the United States locks up too many people for the wrong reasons and for too long. I also think that some weapons can be considered so dangerous and of little use for sporting or personal protection that they can still be reasonably outlawed. Nevertheless, my new view was that the primary problem relates to hatred, greed and jealousy and not to guns, per se.

Still, my new view was more favorable to gun ownership. The problem wasn’t in admitting to others that I had been wrong. It wasn’t even the idea of being embarrassed in front of family, friends and associates with whom I had long argued the other way.

No, the real problem was that a part of my brain didn’t want to let go of the old position. While my” logical” brain cells were adapting to my new view, my “emotional” brain cells kept some conflict going. Emotionally, I still wanted to believe that if guns were just off the street, community would be established or restored. It took a lot of reading of history, interaction with others, and periods of reflection before my emotions caught up with my logic.

This has gotten me to thinking that when we argue our views with others, we have to address both their logical and emotional states. And sometimes, I think we do it counterproductively. Every time we tell someone else their views are “stupid” or call them “ignorant” we are just inviting the emotional self to dig in, sometimes forcing their logical cells to take a back seat. And of course, we aren’t being very considerate and respectful.

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Mike 07.25.04 at 2:10 pm

I think you’ve made a very pertinent point there Joel. We can blame too many things on the means of evil and injustice themselves and not on the attitudes and conflicts that use them. We must remember that nothing in itself - be it a gun or simply a harsh word - has the ability to do harm, it’s got to be dispensed by someone. You can take the guns off the street, but that’s not gonna take the poison out of people’s minds.

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