I’m going to start this post with a personal admission: I’m so angry at what’s just happened in the UK. The loss of Britain’s membership to the EU, the potential damage to the EU itself, and the denial for future generations of a connection to the wider world makes me livid. In an age where we should be coming together as a species, where borders should be evaporating, where tribalism should be being replaced by tolerance, we’re instead seeing a terrifying worldwide reversion into xenophobia, fear, and separatism, all to boost the power, wallets and egos of a few appallingly dangerous men.
I want to scream “what the hell did they think they were doing?”, but I already know the answer, and I can’t really be surprised. Many of those who voted to leave thought that they knew what they were voting about, but they didn’t. Because their minds had been hacked.
If you read my blog, you’ll have read a lot about the evolutionary nature of the human brain, and how it affects our decision making. Let me recap briefly. Most people feel that the thoughts and feelings they experience are the result of their own volition. They believe that they choose to think and feel a certain way, and that those thoughts and feelings are the result of a reasonable process. We assume that if we feel a certain way, that it must be justified; after all, if I thought it or felt it, I must have a good reason.
It doesn’t work this way of course. You or I don’t really exist in the way we think we do. We’re software constructs running somewhere around the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That construct runs at a lag behind the rest of the brain, but combines incoming information to form a ‘narrative’ about reality. The rest of the brain is an evolved platform, a collection of modules most of which are completely automatic (i.e., devoid of consciousness and only accessible to us as the output from those modules). These systems evaluate incoming information and provide an output. Unfortunately for us, a large proportion of those systems are concerned with immediate survival, and their outputs are biased towards not being eaten by predators. That means that most of our ‘decisions’ are actually the result of systems that evolved to keep us alive in a world where our job was to survive long enough to procreate. Note that there’s no complexity or ambiguity in these systems. Life for our primitive ancestors (whose brains we still carry around) was simple and binary. Survive or not, eat or not, shag or not.
So we’re victim to systems that aren’t clued in about the complexity of the modern world. We do have higher brain functions that are capable of complex thought but, unfortunately, they’re also hobbled by survival mechanisms. The brain runs on blood sugar, and we’re programmed to conserve it wherever possible (our ancestors couldn’t readily replace used energy, and evolved mechanisms to limit its use). This means that complex thought is usually bypassed by a series of ‘good enough’ heuristics: these let us get a rapid answer to a problem that is usually good enough for basic survival. Stopping and thinking was dangerous and expensive for our ancestors, so we learnt not to. For most people deep thinking is difficult, and even painful, because it’s not, from an evolutionary survival viewpoint, very helpful.
Of course, we can think, and we can do it extremely well. Humans did evolve this capacity in order to allow complex interactions as our societies became larger and more difficult to understand. But because our instinctive tendency will be to use the ‘good enough’ shortcuts that our brains prefer, without proper training in how to think we’ll usually trust the wrong systems.
And there’s the vulnerability. Powerful people have used that flaw to hack other humans to do their bidding since time immemorial. Without training in complex thinking (in other words, without a decent higher education), it would never occur to us to question our instinctive thoughts and feelings. Those with power agendas are extremely good at triggering basic survival routines in those who don’t know how to question them, in order to manipulate those people. These manipulations usually take a form of a primal and very deeply embedded fear: fear of the outsider, fear of the other, fear of invasion, or fear of loss. They also take advantage of the fear of complexity (because it really does hurt to think about things that we don’t understand, and it feels a lot better when we just stop thinking and accept a simpler solution). This one’s a doozy, because it’s very easy to convince people that the reason they aren’t happy right now is because someone or something else is denying them that happiness. At a basic level, we all want more than we have, and we envy those whom we believe have more than us. Combine this atavistic desire with the fear that ‘they’ might come and take what we already have, and you’ve got a powerful recipe for manipulation. The only antidote is extensive training in complex thinking, and that’s simply not made available to many people – leaving them vulnerable.
Here’s the worst part. If you don’t have the training to recognise the manipulation, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll actually believe that you came up with the implanted idea in the first place, and then fight to spread that idea. This type of manipulation is a sort of weaponised viral meme. And these days, this type of thought ‘virus’ is easily spread through modern communication techniques (especially social media).
If evil actually exists in this world, it’s concentrated in individuals like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump (but you might as well add the name of any contemporary or historical despot). These are men who, in order to enhance their own power, infect with hate and vitriol those unable to defend themselves. The horrible irony is that the people they corrupt in order to push their agendas, the people who end up being their most fervent supporters, are those who are the most vulnerable, and who stand to lose the most. When the British economy crumbles, Boris (with his offshore millions) will be fine. The poor suckers who honestly believed that leaving the EU would get them a better life are screwed.
There’s only one cure for the current worldwide upswing in mind hacking: education. In a world that is quite literally dying, it’s desperately important that we stop screwing around with tribal politics (read here) and get over the cognitive limitations that our evolved brains hobble us with. Stop believing Facebook memes and Google searches, start reading widely and questioning your preconceptions, talk with people who actually know more than you (and be careful of assuming that what they know isn’t worth your respect), be prepared to change your opinions in the presence of convincing knowledge, and be extremely careful of your instincts and feelings – they’re not your friend. It’s not easy training human brains to think, but it’s worth it. It’s so worth it.