According to interesting piece of research from Princeton’s Centre for the study of the brain, decisions are made in two parts of the brain. The first part is the lateral prefrontal cortex. This is where advanced, logical thinking is supposed to happen, such as when a person decides which investment to make or which automobile offers the most value for the money. Deeper down in the grey matter is another decision centre, the more primitive limbic system, which is where the real thinking takes place. Researchers describe this part of the brain as deciding our likes and dislikes… and telling us how to react to immediate stimuli. When a dump truck cuts you off in traffic, for example, the limbic system practically has your right arm and middle finger cocked in the traditional salute before your lateral prefrontal cortex has time to weigh out the pros and cons.
The research was said to explain why Americans save so little. One part of the brain told them they should, but the other insisted on buying a new wide- screen TV. Though the report was circulated in the media as though it meant something, it left us only more puzzled than before. When did Americans acquire this limbic system, we wondered? Up until 1980, American savings rates were around 10% of incomes. Was there some kind of evolutionary mutation that occurred in the early years of the Reagan Administration?
And why don’t the Chinese seem to have the same problem? They are said to save 25% of their incomes, while we save less than 1%. Someone ought to pry open a Chinese skull and take a peek to verify this, but our guess is that the Chinese have limbic systems too.
At least the scientists were wise enough to realise that not every thought that passes through the human brain makes any real sense. The most powerful thoughts – strong enough to put the average American’s retirement in jeopardy – are not logical at all, but instinctive, atavistic, primordial…and often practically insane.
When Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Germany, the words came out of the advanced part of his brain.
They were nice, multi-syllabic, Latinate words, the kind of words you’d expect from a former professor of government. But they were greasy and meaningless, also just what you’d expect. The kind of bosh you find on a typical high-minded editorial page. It was as if what came out of the president’s mouth were brightly colored bubbles… that floated, airily… lightly… above the crowds. His talk of “making the world safe for democracy” was nothing more than gas. He was proposing to go into the war on the side of the English – who were at that very moment making sure there was no popular democracy in the Empire. The Irish… the Indians… the Egyptians… the American president didn’t even mention them.
Had the upper brain been allowed to do its work, surely it would have told him that if he wanted to make the world safe for democracy he ought to go to war with the nation who suppressed it most widely; he might just as well have entered the war on the side of Germany against England.
But deeper down in Wilson’s limbic system were idealised pictures of the Magna Carta… the robes and wigs of English courts… High Tea… Dickens and Thackeray… and all the trappings of the English upper classes as they were imagined by a naïve and admiring college professor from Princeton, New Jersey. The president, his advisors, his cabinet, and his leading allies had such bad cases of anglophilia they practically stuttered and drooled. And when they stirred the mob, the gaudy balloons they sent aloft meant nothing more than a signal that the fight had begun. The poor schmucks’ blood was up already. Wilson’s big words merely unleashed them.
We are not rehashing the history of WWI. Instead, we are reaching for another, sharper point. One moment of reasonable thought would have shown what a losing proposition the European War would likely be, but the thinking was taking place in the limbic system, not the lateral prefrontal cortex.
Wilson’s limbic system had already made his decision. And the public, too, was soon engaged. The cannon were being drawn up for war. Medals were being readied. They looked up at Wilson’s empty words and must have thought they saw the image of the Virgin Mary. In no time at all, they were on their knees… pledging all they had to the war effort, giving up their purses, their sons, and their integrity. The super-patriots were drilling holes through their walls so they could spy on neighbours with names like Bauer and Feldgenhauer. In Tulsa, a Bulgarian was hanged when a mob mistook him for a German. In Baltimore, a former mayor blew his brains out after being charged with being a German sympathiser. And woe to anyone who dared to laugh or cry.
“War is the health of the state,” said Bismarck. War appeals to the limbic system even more than a new pair of shoes. Connoisseurs of Big Macs and reality TV see the bright shine of polished brass, and bombs exploding in air and they are drawn to it like sinners to the sparkling gates of Hell.
Politicians feel the need to explain it, to justify it, to dress it up in respectable clothes to hide the jackboots and to slosh on perfume to cover the stench of death. But the words mean nothing. The common man is often as ready for war as he is for an extension of his line of credit.
WWI turned out to be a catastrophe as meaningless and senseless as Wilson’s words. But the limbic system still functions. Could it be setting us up for another catastrophe? Once again, the yahoos cheer a new group of “Wilsonian” officials. Once again, they think they are making the world safe for democracy. And for the first time ever, their leading economists hold out cheap credit like a waiter offering free piece of apple pie to a fat man.
The brain may have two centres of decision-making. But only one of them makes the important decisions. The other is merely a lackey and a stooge; he does what he is told.
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