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February 07, 2008

Is (Human) Cognitive Dissonance Explained by (Human) Emotions?

We have enjoyed our spectacular success as a species through  the cognitive power of our highly evolved brains, organs far more complex in their multiple functions than our livers and even more sensitive to nutritional interruption than our hearts. Because our brains are also our organs of cognition, it’s easy to forget their intrinsically physical nature as we use them to argue about what ideas should shape the policies governing our increasingly complex and densely populated world.

Over the last five centuries or so, the emergence of Science as a discrete— yet difficult-to-define— way of thinking about the environment has had several critical effects on human existence; effects that seem to have been as overlooked as the brain’s complexity and the fact that cognition is only one of its several  functions. Another way to think about human cognition is to realize that the “artificial” intelligence of our computers can, at best, only imitate those ephemeral entities known as “emotions;” yet those same entities also have a visceral basis and have been shaped by Evolution. They also exert profound, influences on both our individual and group behavior.

With hindsight, it’s also clear that it took the sequential contributions of many individuals, of whom Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Gutenberg were but a few, to launch what (only later) has become Western “Science” and now dominates how certain types of “truth” are recognized. To put it as succinctly as possible, there has never been much question that Science and Religion are very different ways of thinking; what has always been at issue is how each should be defined; and by which bureaucratic agencies.

What our history also teaches us is that the more we have understood “nature’s” complexities, the more the human population has grown and the more contentious have become disagreements between the  bureaucracies (nations) claiming hegemony over different parts of the planet. As modern transportation and communication have been literally shrinking its dimensions, so have our increased numbers and technologic prowess made all forms of competition for its resources more likely, more dangerous, and more difficult to resolve.

That we would, at the same time, still be clinging to an ineffective global drug policy, one that also denigrates the importance of human emotions, seems the height of folly; yet a cursory look at America’s Presidential selection process confirms that both the media and the candidates expect the usual disinterest and the public has no apparent objections.

My conversations with pot users finally led me to two separate realizations: the first, and most obvious, was the impact our emotions have always had on our cognition. Continued thinking about rejection of that concept by people with good reasons to have been more interested also suggests that our human emotional-versus-cognitive conflict is both archetypal and a major source of bias.  Also, that it probably results from the continued interaction of two brain functions that have been evolving somewhat asynchronously, and in different anatomical locations. Finally; that the conflict has been misinterpreted precisely because the older moral (emotional, religious) bias of human society has (thus far) managed to retain its historical dominance over our more recently evolved cognitive prowess.

Our future as a species may now depend on how that conflict is ultimately resolved...and how quickly.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at February 7, 2008 06:46 PM