Saturday, June 30, 2012

how we decide

This post contains graphic violence.

This was a pretty good book, though as always--especially with pop science books--it's important to read critically.  The basic idea is, you have an intuitive brain, which calculates much faster and more thoroughly than your rational brain.  You also have your rational brain, which you can understand, but which can't handle much info at once even at it's best.  There are certain ways in which each will reliably error, and in general they work correctively on each other.  It was satisfying to see that the current science lines up with my personal theorizing, and to see so much backup for the difficult premise I've been increasingly focused on--emotions are really imperative for even basic functionality.  I suspect that I'm going to be addicted to cognitive bias books for awhile yet--much of the material overlaps, but everyone presents it in a different way, and somehow the project of refining my own views on it remains fascinating.  


One of the most riveting passages in How We Decide is in the chapter, "the moral mind," where Lehrer discusses the development of (intuitive) moral instincts.  A scientist named Harry Harlow did a series of horrifying/fascinating experiments in the early 50s on bonding in monkeys.  His original intent was to breed them, which had never been done successfully.  To avoid disease, he kept the first generation of young in complete social isolation and cared only for their physical health--which remained good.  But, as Lehrer writes,


"the physical health of these young monkeys hid a devastating sickness: they had been wrecked by loneliness. . . they proved incapable of even the most basic social interactions.  They would maniacally rock back and forth in their metal cages, sucking on their thumbs until they bled.  When they encountered other monkeys, they would shriek in fear, run to the corners of their cages, and stare at the floor.  If they felt threatened, they would lash out in vicious acts of violence.  Sometimes these violent tendencies were turned inward.  One monkey ripped out its fur in bloody clumps.  Another gnawed off his own hand.  Because of their early deprivation, these babies had to be isolated for the rest of their lives. . .


The scientists had lined their cages with cloth diapers so that the monkeys didn't have to sleep on the cold concrete floor.  The motherless babies quickly became obsessed with these cloth rags.  They would wrap themselves in the fabric and cling to the diapers if anyone approached the cages.  The soft fabric was their sole comfort. . . 


(Harlow) decided to raise the next generation of baby monkeys with two different pretend mothers.  One was a wire mother, formed out of wire mesh, while the other was a mother made out of soft terry cloth. . . instead of hand-feeding some of the babies, he put their milk bottles in the hands of the wire mothers.  His question was simple: what was more important, food or affection?


In the end, it wasn't even close.  No matter which mother held the milk, the babies always preferred the cloth mothers.  The monkeys would run over to the wire mothers and quickly sate their hunger before immediately returning to the comforting folds of cloth.  By the age of six months, the babies were spending more than eighteen hours a day with their soft parent.  They were with the wire mothers only long enough to eat.


The moral of Harlow's experiment is that primate babies are born with an intense need for attachment.  They cuddled with the cloth mothers because they wanted to experience the warmth and tenderness of a real mother.  Even more than food, these baby monkeys craved the feeling of affection.  'It's as if the animals are programmed to seek out love,' Harlow wrote.  


When this need for love wasn't met, the babies suffered from a tragic list of side effects.  The brain was permanently damaged so that the monkeys with wire mothers didn't know how to deal with others, sympathize with strangers, or behave in a socially acceptable manner.  Even the most basic moral decisions were impossible.  As Harlow would later write, "If monkeys have taught us anything, it's that you've got to learn how to love before you learn how to live."


Harlow would later test the limits of animal experimentation, remorselessly probing the devastating effects of social isolation.  His cruelest experiment was putting baby monkeys in individual cages with nothing--not even a wire mother--for months at a time.  The outcome was unspeakably sad.  The isolated babies were like primate psychopaths, completely numb to all expressions of emotion.  They started fights without provocation and they didn't stop fighting until one of the monkeys had been seriously injured.  They were even vicious to their own children.  One psychopathic monkey bit off the fingers of her child.  Another killed her crying baby by crushing its head in her mouth.  Most psychopathic mothers, however, just perpetuated the devastating cycle of cruelty.  When their babies tried to cuddle, they would push them away.  The confused infants would try again and again, but to no avail.  Their mothers felt nothing." 


I can understand why I haven't run into a detailed description of this study before.  The information can easily be twisted/used for damaging mother blaming and victim shaming--the idea being that victims of abuse and neglect are permanently damaged, period.  It thus deserves particularly respectful handling.  I also think that Lehrer is clearly over-reaching when he assigns a lack of emotion to the "psychopathic" monkeys, perhaps due to my own experience--it isn't that I don't want to connect with people, but I've spend most of my life not knowing how.

This was a really hopeful thing for me to read, simply because it's so validating.  For as long as I can remember, I've felt that I was a bottomless pit of need.  For my first 22 years, I believed that everyone had this--and that everyone else was simply better at handling it, or perhaps was better than me in general.  It isn't gone, but I have learned to calm it.  And as I try to carry it--to carry it gracefully, which is hard, and still be a good friend, sister, roommate, student, and aunt--it helps to know that this is a completely normal hunger, and that not everyone was raised in empty cages.

1 comment:

  1. Hunh, this gives me some interesting monkey-torture ideas.

    ReplyDelete