Jim Wares: The simple-minded brain

I learned that even though I like to think of my brain as being an agile, graceful and eloquent mechanism, a repository of knowledge, a machine fueled by the power of logic…it’s really a clumsy and oafish sort of thing that at times forces me to wonder how it is that it has gotten me by thus far. Brains! They’re so stupid.

There have been many variations of this experiment called the “bridge experiment”. The bridge experiment is designed to test the idea of “the misattribution of arousal” which is when the brain tells us something is caused by one thing but is in reality caused by a another thing but the brain still wants to believe the thing was caused by the other thing. Got it?

The bridge experiment and the misattribution of arousal work something like this. You have two bridges; each spans 450 feet across a deep canyon far above a raging river. One bridge is wide and sturdy, made of steel, the other is a rickety foot bridge made of twisted vines and rotting wood planks. The researchers send test subjects, young college guys, one at a time, across each bridge. On the far side of each bridge another researcher, a young and very attractive female researcher, waits to interview the test subject after he crosses the bridge. At the end of the interview, the attractive female researcher gives the college guy test subject her phone number just in case he has any questions.

This is what happens…of the college guy test subjects sent walking across the wide, steel bridge toward the attractive researcher, after being given her phone number, 12.5 percent actually called her…(open air quotes) because they had questions (close air quotes).

Now, of the college guy test subjects sent walking across the rickety, swaying in the wind foot bridge, toward the attractive researcher who gives out her phone number just in case they have any questions…50 percent, four times as many, of the test subjects called…(open air quotes) because they had questions (close air quotes)

Psychologists credit this discrepancy between the 12.5 percent and the 50 percent to the misattribution of arousal, the gullibility of the brain. Walking across a wide, steel bridge is a casual sort of thing that doesn’t evoke much of a physiological response. Walking across an apparently dangerous bridge causes the heart rate to increase, breathing deepens and quickens, perspiration beads on the hands and forehead, physiological responses caused by fear and anxiety. But the stupid brain doesn’t attribute these responses to fear or anxiety but instead associates these physiological responses with the attractive researcher.

Knowing how this works has real life implications and applications. Our brains stupidity can be useful. Thinking about a first date? Take her sky diving. Scare the bejesus out of her. Her brain will confuse the terror of dying with the exhilaration of falling in love. Or take him to Starbucks and order him a triple espresso. Get his heart pounding and the veins in his temples pulsating. He’ll believe its chemistry…which it is…just not that chemistry.

I use the misattribution of arousal on my wife all the time. She’ll be in the kitchen, rinsing dishes, singing to herself as she is, looking out the window, daydreaming. I’ll sneak up behind her, take a deep, deep breath, hold it, then let out a loud, piercing, South Carolina style turkey call in her ear which makes her leap and scream …then I say…chooocolate ice creeeeeeam…and after she pulls herself from the ceiling and is able to speak she says, “I love you. Wouldn’t some chocolate ice cream be thrilling right now?” The ole’ misattribution of arousal, works every time.

Advertisers know how dumb our brains are. They use this thing psychologist call the “halo effect”. This is when our brains focus on a singular, positive attribute and ignore the many negative attributes of a person or thing. “Yes! I know my boyfriend is selfish, self-centered, ill-tempered, not very bright and sort of ugly…but he’s so funny.” And he may be funny. But he is still selfish, self-centered, ill-tempered, not very bright and sort of ugly.

You may remember back when cigarettes were advertised on television. Marlboros were associated with being a free spirited cowboy, you could take a pack of Salems out of the country but you couldn’t take the country out of pack of Salems, Virginia Slims were smoked by strong, independent and sexy women. All these are examples of the halo effect…positive images designed to distract from the more essential image of a diseased lung. Booze is associated with a successful and carefree lifestyle, energetic virility and simply good taste…not cirrhosis of the liver. Wars are packaged as noble, sometimes benevolent endeavors, not the bloody, destructive things they really are.

For such a sophisticated species, our brains are easily fooled. Our brains even fool themselves. Our brains, on their own initiative, fill in voids in our vision, create narratives to fill in the blanks in our memories, even create facts to fill in for our ignorance. I’m not sure this is such a bad thing…that our brains make stuff up, connect the utterly unconnected and create story lines that help make sense of the senseless. How else, as a species, would we manage to hope when all is hopeless, to fight when the battle should already be lost, to continue to believe that good can be found in a world with so much wickedness? God knew what he was doing. He made us smart…but not too smart. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at whatjimhaslearnedtoday@yahoo.com