Michael Shermer has written an interesting book about reason and the human brain. Entitled "The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as True," Shermer portrays the brain as a "belief engine" that drives its owner on pattern-seeking trips. The brain's processing capacity, regrettably, is not so good at reasoning. Early education, often infused with toxic, ludicrous beliefs, are not easily weeded out later in life. Once beliefs about the nature of reality are formed, decisions large and small are processed accordingly.
I found this perspective helpful while trying to make sense of Rick Perry's candidacy and enthusiasm for it by poor and middle-class followers. That anyone not already enmeshed in a fundamentalist Christian Republican Party worldview would not be appalled by Perry, as well as sister leading Tea Party lights like Bachmann, Palin and that ilk, calls out for a biological explanation.
J.M. Keynes defined capitalism as the extraordinary belief that "the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all." Perry and the fundies love capitalism as practiced in the U.S. for the richest one percent of the population. That this vile man would also be embraced by non-rich Americans after doing little or nothing on their behalf for a decade as governor in Texas boggles the mind. Prayer leader Perry, the darlin of a fundamentalist cult called, "the New Apostolic Reformation," stands ready to lead a faith-based army seeking a "kingdom of God" - in this life, not just an imagined eternal existence that starts after death.
Listen to Perry and you can add separation of church and state to the causes of our economic meltdown, along with abortion, uppity women and gay marriage. Elect Perry and the Federal government will deal with "Jezebel" (a biblical whore), "Saul Structures" (an invisible pagan network of evil), demons, liberals, union members, anyone pro-choice or sympathetic to gays/lesbians/bisexuals or transgendered folks, anti-war activists, environmentalist or, god-forbid, anyone lacking a serious crush on Jesus. Perry considers Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid unconstitutional programs, "Ponzi" schemes bankrupting the country. Then there's that well known threat, expressed on several occasions, to lead Texas out of the Union. An awkward idea for someone who wants to lead that Union, presumably that includes Texas.
I believe it was R.D. Laing who observed, "It is no measure of mental health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society."
According to Shermer, we find reasons to support existing beliefs and resist evidence to the contrary. The smarter we are, the better our rationalizations.
What better explanation than Shermer's can explain a sitting governor who is not a member of any clergy using his secular office to address a religious congregation as follows: "Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home, we see fear in the marketplace, we see anger in the halls of government. And as a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us."
Whose father is he talking about? How did he determine that "our" hearts break for anyone or anything? Has there not always been discord at home, fear in the marketplace, anger in Congress? Who did make us, besides our parents? Who protects us from what, when and under what conditions? Isn't that what the police are for, if not the Armed Forces? Blesses us? What's a "blessing," anyway, and how does that work? This is all meaningless religious babble - it's conventional for high priests of all sects to go on like this, but it's dangerous folly when perpetrated on the public by an elected public official. We ought to be outraged. Well, some of us ARE outraged, but why not Republicans?
Shermer's ideas about pattern seeking and pattern protection offer an explanation. His concepts deserve the attention of REAL wellness promoters and everyone else. Shermer offers lots of evidence for his own assertions and cities studies that explain why inconvenient truths actually strengthen bogus beliefs founded on crappy ideology. No absurdity is too preposterous for the Republican faithful, as the latest Iowa straw poll suggests. Imagine - Bachmann for president! It boggles the mind. No wonder Borowitz wrote that Standard and Poor's took the "unprecedented action of downgrading Iowa's IQ." But Michele can't celebrate - Borowitz also predicted "tough sledding ahead ... a new poll shows Bachmann losing support to Texas Governor Rick Perry among voters who describe themselves as morons."
Shermer notes, as did Eric Hoffer in "The True Believer," that fundamentalist/ extremist/fanatics ignore contradictory evidence, and cherry-pick data for anything that supports existing beliefs. Hoffer did not have the studies of brain functioning available to Shermer, but he did have good intuition, as reflected in comments such as this: "An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything in to an empty head."
In a review of Shermer's book published in this magazine, fellow columnist "Science Junkie" writes: "We are now experiencing in this country a veritable epidemic of science/reality denial. I sense growing hordes of ideologues rejecting reason and evidence in favor of spin, propaganda, dogma, and lies ... the reality-based community and concerned scientists are at a huge disadvantage trying to combat opponents who hold no respect for the constraints of reason and evidence...the challenge is to persuade people to listen to contradictory evidence and evaluate their own beliefs accordingly."
Shermer would endorse a wellness focus on reason, as he favors education that teaches people how to recognize and thereby resist malevolent snake-oil salesmen like Perry, Bachmann and Palin who poison the nation's atmosphere. To date, reason has not been a prominent element in wellness education on a par with fitness or nutrition, but we better learn to exercise common sense if we hope to overcome the patterns of nonsense laid down in the formative years and reinforced ever since.
But wait! Maybe common sense is overrated, or at least misinterpreted. Shermer's writing about the brain puts the focus on the importance of science and reason. "Common sense," as interpreted, can and often does lead us astray. After all, common sense is what the Tea Partiers think they have. John Dewey wrote, "Common sense is that which tells us that the earth is flat." Common sense -- the way people naturally think -- is what Shermer want us to try to overcome; critical thinking based on reason and evidence is uncommon sense. Uncommon sense requires training and discipline.
Good luck. Don't let me discourage you. Do what you can to stay well, fit and focused - and look on the bright side of life