Monday, March 16, 2009
Harvard Beats Yale 29 - 29 (And Brains Misfire)
We went to a screening of a movie Saturday. It documents a famous football game between Harvard and Yale in 1968. My wife, a senior at Harvard at the time, was at the game, so I'd heard the story many times: a near miraculous comeback, wherein Harvard scored 16 points in the final forty-two seconds of the game to tie the highly-favored Yale (they had Calvin Hill on the team, among others), as the last second ticked. The title of the movie, the title of this post, was the headline in the Harvard Crimson the next day.
There was much to enjoy in the movie, including the fact that a friend of ours was one of the participants, and remembering that the game occurred in the tumult of 1968, a rare quilt of common intention held against a background of protests, sit-ins, campus takeovers. War, assassinations, seething. Doonesbury.
But, for the cynical realist in me, there was a special feature. The movie had a villain, a self-absorbed and clueless Yalie who admitted trying deliberately to injure his opponents, proud of it (he did, in the end, acquire a little redemption by implying it might have been wrong.) Here's the best part: a Harvard running back injured his ankle and had to leave the game. The Yalie claimed credit, specifically describing using his helmet like a spear, aiming directly at the ankle. He admitted carrying a grudge for a year, since the previous Harvard-Yale game in which the Harvard player had humiliated him with a brilliant move, and he'd been looking forward to sweet revenge. Asked by the interviewer if there was any chance it was someone else who made hit, the man went on to recall the feeling of it, the joy of it, in detail. At which point the play was shown again (the movie was a mixture of footage from the game, with recollections of players all these years later.) The man was nowhere near the play; rather, he was at the bottom of a pile well across the the field.
Which, at last, brings me to my point, one which I've made before: as humans we are led around inside our heads by our brains and have little ability to see it. We have certainties where none should exist; facts are assumed or discarded at the discretion of this cluster of neurons or that one, and we can no more recognize or admit it than my laptop knows what I'm writing. Meta-thought is given to few.
The science of decision-making, about which, like most people, I know very little, is fascinating. There are forces at work in our heads which, presumably, come from millions of years of evolution: how we process danger and uncertainty, and why; the shorthand we use to make sense of disconnected data points, how we fill in the blanks. The hints we get from the kinds of research mentioned in the preceding link suggest to me (and here I go, following my brain to where it feels most comfortable) the roots of religion, and of political leanings. All of a piece.
We deal with uncertainties in ways that are predetermined by our neurons to a degree most of us would prefer to deny. Why some believe in god and others don't; why some think Barack Obama is a Nazi planning detention camps for conservatives and others don't (I don't, but I did vote for hope); why some see risk and others don't: it's a matter of wiring. Amygdalas, cingulate cortices. Stuff I don't understand but would love to.
It's a potentially very fruitful area of study. To know what we know, to know what we don't know. (As a doctor, I do know how important that is, and I've seen the consequences of the not-knowing.) To understand how we understand; to recognize what we're not recognizing: how much better might our decision-making become? To see our limitations and thus limit ourselves in certain certainties: might Mitch McConnell uncork his head and start pitching in?
To see belief as originating in ourselves, in our wired-in need to formulate answers, discounting discordance, in the face doubt: to me, it would make for a better world, less likely to lead to planes flying into buildings or dumbing down our schools with creationism. Assuming people would accept it, be satisfied with it, recognize it for what it is. But that would take a level of thought, of thought about thought, of which we seem mostly incapable. It's too buried in our software, and too uncomfortable.
Good movie, though.
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