Sunday, October 11, 2009

Post No. 137c: A Funny Thing Happened to Us on the Way to the Forum (Part 3)

This is a continuation of our daily excerpts taken from “New World New Mind.” This is the third excerpt in the series. For an introductory explanation of why we have chosen this book to share with you, click here.

[All of this is copyrighted material, and we are simply sharing some of it with you.]

Chapter 1 – The Threat within the Triumph (Continued)

“We don’t perceive the world as it is, because our nervous system evolved to select only a small extract of reality and to ignore the rest. We never experience exactly the same situation twice, so it would be uneconomical to take in every occurrence. Instead of conveying everything about the world, our nervous system is “impressed” only by dramatic changes. This internal spotlight makes us sensitive to the beginnings and endings of almost every event more than the changes, whether gigantic or tiny, or in the middle.

“The perception of dramatic changes begins deep with the nervous system, amid simple sensing such as seeing light. Put a three-way bulb (50 -100 -150 watts) in a lamp in a dark room. Turn on the lamp: the difference between darkness and the 50 – watt illumination is seen as great; but the increase from 50 to 100 and from 100 to 150 seems almost like nothing. Although the change in the physical stimulus is exactly the same, you notice it less and less as each 50 watts are added. Turn off the lamp, even from the 50 - watt setting, however, and you feel it immediately! We notice the beginning and the end and overlook the greater changes in the middle.

“You might be thinking that this analysis of lamps and sensing light is very far removed from the major dilemmas of our current world. But our point is that many of the predicaments of our society come about from the way people respond to, simplify, and ultimately, ‘caricature’ reality in their minds. Our caricature emphasizes the dramatic and distinctive features of events, in the same way as a cartoon caricature of a politician might exaggerate Lyndon Johnson’s outsize ears, Richard Nixon’s ski-jump nose, [and] Mikhail Gorbachev’s forehead birthmark.

“This simplified focus on the dramatic is now out of date in complex modern life; the same routines of internal analysis that originally developed to signal abrupt physical changes in the old world are now pressed into service to perceive and decide about unprecedented dangers in the new. Scarce and unusual items, be they a headline news event, a one-day dress sale, or a chance for peace, come into mind through the same old avenues and are filtered and judged in the same old way.

“This mismatched judgment happens in the most basic as well as the most momentous situations. In psychology experiments, a word at the beginning of a list heard once is recalled 70 percent of the time, words in the middle less than 20 percent, and words at the end almost 100 percent. In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan illustrated these principles. He said: ‘Politics is just like show business. You need a big opening. Then you coast for a while. Then you need a big finish.’ Reagan is renowned for his political savvy.

“The same sensitivity to sharp changes gets called into play in judging the most important, life-or-death essentials. Consider this: the first atomic bombs were kept secret and then unveiled suddenly. The mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the sudden vast destruction they cause signaled a sharp change in the world. The new threat was readily noticed and properly feared.

“But two responses indicate that humanity did not perceive this important change in the world correctly. First, that atomic explosion on Hiroshima made a far greater impression than the much greater destruction and death visited upon Tokyo by conventional incendiary bombs, since burning cities seen from the air (in newsreels) had by then become routine and so were ignored.

“And, second, since the first frightening explosions, nuclear weapons have accumulated gradually until they now number in the tens of thousands, and most of them are ten to a hundred times more powerful than those that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our minds are inhibited in noticing the threat; the continuing accumulation of gigantic arsenals doesn’t get the same attention as the first weapons. Only public relations events, new ‘beginnings’ like the nuclear winter announcement, or the showing of the TV film The Day After, can reattract old minds – and then only temporarily until habituation sets in again.

“The human nervous system, well matched to a world in which small, sharp changes were important but large gradual ones were not, is inadequate to keep attention focused on this most ominous nuclear trend. Our nervous system and our world are mismatched now."


  1. Here's my problem...

    “But two responses indicate that humanity did not perceive this important change in the world correctly." (emphasis added)

    Correctly according to whom? The authors ignore their own perceptions and biases. Those who lecture (whether directly or through books) always assume they are correct, their understanding is the right one, and the rest of us fail to grasp the reality and totality of the situation.

    They may be right, I can't say, but it turns me off.

  2. Douglas:

    Whose writings (in the area of improvement of society) turn you on, or you agree with?

  3. Must I agree with someone? I tend to formulate my own opinions which may, or may not, conform to others. I don't look for affirmation of my opinions (though I, like anyone, appreciate it when it happens.

    I don't know that we need to actively improve society. Not that society can't, or shouldn't, or doesn't, improve. But that when we seek to improve it, we are trying to dictate how and why and where it should improve.

    See my political blog. Specifically, this post:

  4. Douglas:

    Whose writings (in the area of improvement of society) turn you on, or you agree with?


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