A CAT-Scan of the Global Brain (Part 2)

A CAT-Scan of the Global Brain (Part 2)
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When it first came into usage, "the global brain" seemed like only a metaphor. But the more we learn about how the human brain functions, the more convincing the parallels are in real life. In many ways each of us is participating in a brain without borders, one that encompasses humankind. I'd like to focus on several striking similarities between individual and collective intelligence.

--Reality is shaped by perception.

When the brain perceives that something is real, it becomes real. As a present instance, this helps explain the falling dollar and $100 a barrel oil. Economists have been puzzled by why the dollar should continue to drop in value when the U.S. has the strongest economy in the world. Objective indicators are mostly positive, but they don't match world perception. In the eyes of the world, the U.S. is risking its future in Iraq, even more so by aligning itself against Islam. Talk of World War III from Pres. Bush strengthens fears that America has set itself against a billion Muslims. At the same time, oil prices reflect insecurity about the Middle East in general. The U.S. would like its intentions to become reality, since our prevailing perception is that we fight for peace. But the global brain has other ideas.

It's already well known that markets are created by psychology. Stocks go up and down depending on perceived value, and perceived value lies in the mind of the beholder. You can make a million dollars selling ordinary rocks if you can convince people to perceive them as pet rocks. What we're seeing with soaring oil and the falling dollar is perceived value on a world scale, but one can go a layer deeper. The clash between Islam and America is rooted in belief in invisible things. On the Islamic side Allah is an article of faith; faith leads to certainty; certainty guides behavior. A suicide bomber performs his deadly act in the material world, yet if you trace such attacks back to their source, the source is entirely faith-based. This contradicts any notion that concrete things are more real than invisible ones.

American perception is the reverse. Islam is seen as illusory and fanatically misguided. Here I am talking principally about the Christian right and the politicians who pander to them by spreading fear in society. The religious right wants to wage a war of faith against faith, which is to say one subjective perception trying to defeat another. There is no basis for this conflict other than subjectivity, yet on a collective level the result is world turmoil.

-- The higher brain is separate from the lower brain but often ruled by it.

In the structure of the human brain one can differentiate the actual tissues and location of our ancestral brain. It is located lower down and farther back than the cerebral cortex, the higher brain. In daily life the two come into conflict but don't break out in naked warfare, because the lower brain can be repressed. When you argue with your spouse, you don't obey the lower brain's instinct to commit murder. But its atavistic anger, fear, and primitive emotions never go away. Therefore, life consists of a constant negotiation between old and new, between reason and instinct. This doesn't make the instinctual brain bad or wrong; in a crisis or at moments of inspiration, instinct can play a hugely beneficial role.

On a global level, the old brain is represented by tribalism and a deep suspicion of "the other," those people who lie outside one's immediate circle. The tribe bonds instinctively. It wars against other tribes without resort to rationality. One sees this in the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq. Rationally, both groups have everything to gain from mutual cooperation and respect. They should be sharing oil wealth, freedom from a cruel despot, and a future full of technological benefits. But tribal instinct forces each side to fall back upon ancient grievances. To the old brain it doesn't matter what year it is; the time is always yesterday, a remembered epoch of the fight for survival.

The U.S. made the critical mistake of treating the fall of Saddam as an action controlled by the higher brain. Democracy is better than despotism. Freedom is better than oppression. To the higher brain, it doesn't compute that freedom should lead to chaos and revenge. But higher perceptions can be arrogant and closed off, as they were here. The U.S. forgot that life is always a negotiation between higher and lower brain functions. This blindness has led to deep confusion. By equating the American cause with "civilization," we fail to see that killing one hundreds thousand Iraqis in the shock-and-awe campaign was just as atavistic as murder in the name of the tribe. Similarly, we haven't found a way to encourage the Iraqis to follow their own rational nature. Yet without a doubt the higher brain operates in that country as much as it does here. Assuming that we stand for the higher brain while Iraq stands for the lower is unreal and false. Every society, like every individual, is caught up in a balance between the two.

(To be continued)

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