Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Human Brain and Rational Thought


Lately, I have been living a dual existence. By day, I am the editorial director at BYU Studies, where I deal largely with rational-thinking experts in various fields. These are mostly professors who have been trained to think clearly, to present logical arguments, and to rely on verifiable or at least reputable evidence. On the editorial end of the publishing process, we source check everything, invite peer reviews, and carefully consider the arguments presented to determine whether everything “adds up.” Sometimes it doesn’t, and so we send articles back to their authors for revision. I’ve been doing this for over sixteen years now, so I feel very comfortable in this world of rational thought and careful reasoning. I believe it has given me a pretty good eye for reliable information and reputable sources.

At home, I spend a lot of time with my wife, who is a self-employed math tutor, so rational thinking is also the norm in our conversations. For the past few months of the pandemic, we have also had our oldest son living with us. He works as a research analyst in New York City for the Economist, so if you want accurate data about all sorts of topics, he’s a great source. During the pandemic, the Economist’s office is closed and he has to work remotely, so he figured he could work just as easily from our house in Utah as from a New York apartment (and get better food), and he’s moved in with us until the New York office opens back up. In essence, for a good part of my waking hours, I live in a very rational world.

Then there’s the rest of my life. At the end of May, my ninety-five-year-old dad fell and broke his hip. He was starting to fail both physically and mentally before the accident; his balance wasn’t very good, and his memory was deteriorating. He was still living alone up until the broken hip, but we were worried about him because he had fallen several times over the winter and spring. Even though his memory had been getting worse over the past few years, he was still lucid and able to carry out his daily routine, including driving around North Ogden to run errands (I used to tease him that he drove better than he walked) and taking care of the house and yard, with a little hired help to assist him. Despite his strength and balance issues, he was in good enough shape physically that after he broke his hip the orthopedist recommended surgery to stabilize the femur and reduce the pain. After a month in rehab, where he made slow but steady progress, my dad was discharged, and I brought him to an assisted living facility in Provo, where he could continue receiving care and, we hoped, perhaps get well enough to move back home.

But the shock to his system caused by this major trauma was apparently too severe. As the hip healed, his general physical health and his mental health began to decline. It soon became obvious that he would never return home. It has been a roller-coaster ride since then, but the overall trend has been downhill. The short-term memory issues he has had for a few years suddenly blossomed into almost total memory loss. Some days are better than others, but most days if I call him shortly after lunch, he can’t remember if he has eaten or not. And he has been experiencing disorientation in waves that last several days, followed by several days when he at least knows where he is. When he gets disoriented, he sometimes hallucinates, or at least inhabits a different reality than the one most people inhabit. He told me one day, for instance, that he was down by the lake, and there were ten streams there. He counted them for me. I knew he was in his room, however, because he was talking to me on the phone, and it is a land line. Another day, he told my sister that he had just returned from Ohio. This break with reality seems to ebb and flow. For a few days, he’ll be present in his surroundings, albeit still with little memory. But then he becomes detached and talks about things that aren’t real.

The brain is a complex organ. We really don’t understand it well. Even those who research it or counsel those who deal with mental illnesses don’t really have a clue about how brain chemistry works, what causes thought processes to sometimes derail and depart from the rational world, or why some medications seem to ease the symptoms. When the brain gets old, something often seems to break, sort of like a computer with corrupted software. My dad is experiencing this. So, quite often his reality is not the same as mine. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t very real to him. I have no doubt that he actually saw in his mind the lake and the ten streams.

There are similarities between my dad’s atrophying brain and the brain of one of my sons, who is dealing with a serious mental illness. Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t give any details, other than to say that his reality is very different from mine. A mental health professional gave me some advice one day. She said that it isn’t possible to carry on a rational conversation with a mentally ill person when the illness is manifesting. This advice has actually come in handy when I’m talking with my dad. His brain is broken, and I am unable to experience his reality in the bad stretches. I can try to ask him questions and gently nudge him toward my reality, but his brain is experiencing something different than mine is, so communication is impaired.

And this brings me to another major part of my life that has been frustrating for at least the past four years. I’ve found that I also cannot carry on a rational conversation with Trump supporters. They inhabit a completely different reality, if we can even call it that. The parallels here between dementia and mental illness and a tribalistic Trumpian world view are both obvious and disturbing. Trying to convince a Trump supporter that the president is lying (all the time), or that he has grossly mismanaged the government response to the pandemic, or that he is overtly racist, or that Joe Biden is not a socialist, or that socialism itself is not really a danger (which part of Germany’s economy is it, exactly, that scares you?), or that there has been no significant fraud in the recent election is an exercise in futility. They are convinced that their “reality” is right, and no amount of rational evidence can dissuade them. I’m not sure how to classify this. Brainwashing? Tribalism? Mental illness? What do you call it when someone cannot see the danger and disaster of their own thought processes? How do you convince someone that almost all conspiracy theories are crazy? You can’t give them facts, because they have their “alternative facts,” no matter how inconsistent they are.

So my life right now is a collision of two very different worlds. There is the rational world of evidence and logical reasoning and common sense. In this world, two plus two equals four. And then there is the world of dementia, mental illness, and Trumpian irrationality. In this world, two plus two can equal anything. I want to be able to carry on a sensible conversation with all three of these forms of irrationality, but it may be impossible. For dementia and mental illness, science has not found any cures, even though certain medications can ease the symptoms to a degree. For the irreality inhabited by Trump’s supporters, even a failure on the scale of America’s enormously catastrophic response to the coronavirus can be explained away by his followers. They truly believe that he has done a superb job, just like he says. And they are convinced that there was massive voter fraud, just like he says, despite the lack of any evidence at all. It’s all a big conspiracy to steal the presidency from him. What do you do when millions of people, including your next-door neighbors inhabit a “reality” that is wildly irrational . . . and very dangerous?


  1. "What do you do when millions of people, including your next-door neighbors inhabit a “reality” that is wildly irrational . . . and very dangerous?"

    Have you learned nothing from the right? The answer is simple: You grift them. Sell them dubious health products, pseudo-patriotic merchandise, and gold coins. Get them to subscribe to your newsletter or podcast, and buy your books--all of which reinforce their alternate reality. It's win-win. You get their money, and they get to live more fully in their alternate reality.

  2. Really -- and you cannot see that your irrational approach is really more like tribal commitment to a football team, right or wrong, bad or good, losers or winners? The arrogance in your position is stunning -- and really self-unaware.

    1. And you cannot see the difference between the lies of Donald Trump and those who are exposing his lies?

  3. One of the issues of our time is that news sources have become politicized. Each side can find their own "news" to back up their position. To your Trump supporting neighbors, you may be "wildly irrational and very dangerous."

    I had a conversation the other day with a friend where we recognized that part of the problem is that each side does not trust the other side to stop at a rational stopping point. For the right, the left won't stop until the country is communist. For the left, the right won't stop until the country is fascist. Both sides fear the government of the other party and do not trust them when the say, "Joe Biden is not a socialist" or "the Republicans will not take away gay marriage."

    Both sides have whipped up their base and only see the dangerous extremes on either side. Neither see the hypocricy of their own.

    1. No, there is mainstream news that, while somewhat biased, is grounded in facts and journalistic ethics. Then there is what passes for news on the Right, which has become a fact-free zone that Donald Trump has enlisted to confirm and perpetuate his lies. We have every reason to fear the politics of Donald Trump, as he undermines the foundation of our republic. On the other side, we have no reason to fear that socialism will lead to communism. We have eighty years of German socialism to disabuse us of that fallacy. They are no closer to communism today than they were over 40 years ago, when I served a mission there. I would ask the Republicans who are so taken by this "socialism" argument: What part of the German economy is it that frightens you so much?

  4. As I read this I couldn't help but see Roger in Victorian London, dressed immaculately in the latest fashion, comfortably ensconced in an easy chair in his gentleman's club, brandy in hand, having a conversation with other satisfied and satiated well off toffs. He looks at them and asks in all seriousness, "But really old chaps, what DOES one do with the heathen?"