Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away… (Hughes Mearns)
I also met a bear and a second man, neither of whom was there.
Here’s how it happened. I’m climbing a rough path high above the Kathmandu Valley. The canopy of rhododendron trees shades me from the bright sun. Monkeys frolicked in the bamboo at the nunnery below and crows contested for feast offerings. There are no animal or bird cries up here. Even my sandal-clad footfalls are quiet. The trees hide any view but maybe I’ll see snow mountains from the ridge. I focus on every next step and think I should have worn boots.
Suddenly, I catch a glimpse of a man in black standing completely still just off the track fifty paces ahead where it turns. A robber! My step doesn’t falter and I make no sound so he will not see my fear. I hope not, anyway. Oh, it’s a tree stump. Even if it had been a man, why would I imagine him to be a robber? No need to think about it, it’s only a tree. I walk on. The first part of the path was very rugged. I’d definitely need boots there in the rainy season but here the path is more gradual so no need to watch my steps so closely. There’s still nothing to see but trees. It will be beautiful as well as slippery in Spring. The rhododendrons are not in flower now.
Whoa! There’s a bear just up ahead a few feet off the track. I stop for bears! I stare through the gloomy undergrowth. The bear doesn’t move it’s head even a fraction in my direction. More of its shape registers. I recognize it isn’t moving because it’s a rock formation. Again I walk on. I don’t feel nervous. I’m thinking how odd it is that I’ve now imagined both a robber and a bear less than a quarter hour apart when I’m not nervous but enjoying a peaceful walk. It was plain enough to see what those things really were.
Oh, no. There’s a man ahead dressed in brown and white standing menacingly still. But as soon as I actually look, I realize it’s not a man but another tree stump.
With instruments developed in the last decade we can now observe how such misunderstandings occur. We can follow the sequence of activity within the brain in response to specific stimuli, we can see how much activity is triggered in which areas, we have a relatively detailed map of what functions are performed where and how they inter-operate. We understand, for example, how visual signals sampled at relatively low rates are matched with stored images of potential threats. The first match for the partial outline of a shape can be “man” or “bear”. The matching process continues until all criteria are met by “tree” or “rock”. We can also see that we start to take action based on the first match.
It’s the same for other animals. When a shadow falls suddenly on a chicken it squawks and runs. It doesn’t look up and wait for enough data to be processed so it knows if the object casting the shadow is a hawk before it takes action. It could be dead before the pattern matching completes. Homo sapiens sapiens operates on the same principal but our circuitry is far more complex than that of Gallus gallus domesticus, which has a limited ability to conceptualize. We have an extraordinarily strong ability. Unfortunately, every great strength is also a great weakness.
Our great weakness is acting as if concepts are reality, not an image. My High School biology teacher, a refugee from when Soviet forces crushed the 1956 Hungarian revolution, had an explanation for brutality: “The huge human cerebellum is a cancerous growth”. He said it is too easy for us not to feel, not to see, not to hear, just to think. “We can have the idea to do terrible things, then we can do them, but if we looked at who we destroy, if we really looked, we could never do such things.”
We would be doomed if “Cancerous growth” was a diagnosis of our nature not a metaphor sparked by our behavior. Fortunately, we have training programs so we can escape the causes of brutality and all other harm we do. More on that another time.