This has been cross-posted to Daily Kos

Think about how we perceive: you see a bird flying. This gives information to your brain through the eyes. Your eyes transmit that information through the retina, through the optic nerve to the occipital lobe and, eventually, to the frontal lobe.

Now think about this picture.  What do you see here?  What does your brain do with the conflicting information you receive from it?

This picture is an ambigram, an image which can be viewed in more than one way depending on how you perceive it.

The thing about this sort of image, in particular, is that it manages to convince you visually that you’re looking at two completely contradictory views at the exact same time.

What does this tell you about perception, and the way our brain processes conflicting stimuli? Can you see it as both images simultaneously, or merely as one, then the other, alternating based on how you squint or tip your head?I’m going to talk a little today about what’s called “The Binding Effect” and tie it into some of the confusion we have with social identity and cultural identity.

Think about this for a moment: have you ever had the experience of seeing something and not being able to comprehend it for a moment? A part of you understands that you’ve seen it, but doesn’t understand that you have seen anything at the same time. This happens when you see something that just doesn’t fit your world, like a clown walking down the street or your grade school teacher in the grocery store. There’s a moment of confusion there, and that’s that delay between sight and consciousness.

But there’s more to it in this. You see that bird and you have a name to connect to it. The name may simply be “bird!” (as opposed to “American Robin,” “glossy ibis” or “black-crowned night heron”). So you have this word, and that word comes from your temporal lobe, communicated to the frontal lobe.

But, again, there’s more… that bird is in motion. Another part of your brain, the parietal lobe, investigates the pattern of motion that the bird traverses. This, too, is communicated to your frontal lobe.

Your frontal lobe has basic roles here– if you speak that it’s a bird, your frontal lobe (which contains the motor strip) aids in that vocalization.

But it’s got a much more important role– that of central organizer.

What the frontal lobe does here is take all this information from all the other parts of your brain and organize it in a fashion which, from our point of view, seems absolutely integrated and instantaneous– it’s smooth enough and fast enough that, for most of us, we’re not even conscious that it happens.

And yet, transparent process is a fundamental part of our consciousness. We couldn’t serve as integrated human beings if we were incapable of processing information quickly and easily, even if the process isn’t perfect.

But… we still are not entirely clear as to what consciousness is? What does it mean if the nature of our being can be fundamentally altered by an injury to the frontal lobe? What does it say about our identity? Are we simply machines that can be turned off or reprogrammed, or are we something more elaborate and complicated than that?

There is no simple answer to this question.

As a country, we experience both the ambigram problem and the binding effect on a collective level.  We want to see ourselves as the good guys, so we come up with words (temporal lobe) that define us in certain ways.  So we use words like “freedom fighters” to define our friends and allies and “terrorists” to define our enemies.  We (as in people with money who help shape public opinion, not anyone who’s reading or writing this blog entry) get people like Frank Luntz to find language which supports unpopular ideas and reframes them as though they are popular.  

So you end up with “pro-life” groups who have opponents who are “pro-abortion” and “pro-choice” groups with opponents who are “anti-choice.”  

So we end up with this use of language, that when we hear it creates some implications that may even contradict what we actually see.

In one piece of research, people were shown films of an accident in which a car collided with a telephone poll.  They were then asked a series of questions about the accident.  One question was “how fast do you think the car was going when it ________ into the pole?”  In place of the blank would be one of two words.  Those who were asked how fast is was going when it “bumped” estimated a much slower speed than those who were asked how fast it was going when it “crashed.”

Let me reiterate this: people gave different answers to virtually the same question when being asked to describe an event they witnessed based on the difference of a single word in the question.

So think about that word “torture.”  We’ve made a science out of finding ways to explain how we don’t torture.  A simple google search on the phrase combination “we don’t torture” + bush yields over 68,000 results.    One of these results is this New York Times piece:

President Bush, reacting to a Congressional uproar over the disclosure of secret Justice Department legal opinions permitting the harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects, defended the methods on Friday, declaring, “This government does not torture people.”

So we have language being used to contradict what people have seen.  The article continues, quoting Bush:

“I have put this program in place for a reason, and that is to better protect the American people… when we find somebody who may have information regarding a potential attack on America, you bet we’re going to detain them, and you bet we’re going to question them, because the American people expect us to find out information – actionable intelligence so we can help protect them. That’s our job.”

Never mind the reality– never mind what our brains our telling us on certain levels.  What we’re hearing are the words which make things simpler: we do not torture.  We only question them.  Aggressively.  “That’s our job.”

But it gets better.  The Times continues:

In two separate legal opinions written in 2005, the Justice Department authorized the C.I.A. to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.

The memorandums were written just months after a Justice Department opinion in December 2004 declared torture “abhorrent.”

Torture: abhorrent.  So we don’t torture.  But all that other stuff?  Hey, that’s not torture.  Why not?  As Paul Kiel puts it, “We Don’t Torture Because We Say We Don’t Torture.” Here’s Kiel, quoting from Dana Perrino’s press Gaggle on October 4th:

QUESTION: But is it not possible that some of these classified opinions may have changed the definition of “torture”?

PERINO: No. I don’t believe so. I have not seen them. But as everything was described to me, no, I don’t believe that’s possible….

So we live with this contradiction in the binding effect.  Our temporal lobe is receiving information that says “we do not torture.”  Our frontal lobe is telling us “this is illogical.  Of course we torture.”  Our occipital lobe hasn’t seen the torture (you know, except for all those horrible photos, but those were just “a few bad apples.”).  Our parietal lobe is pretty much sitting this one out, which is just as well because we’d just as soon not have it involved in anything connected with torture (it’s where we receive pain and other sensory input).

And in the meantime, I wonder about damage: what sort of damage this does to our collective psyches?  What kind of damage this lie we tell ourselves is doing to us, as a nation and a people.  It’s one thing to feel as though your country does bad things from time to time.  It’s another to pretty much know it while being given excuses not to admit it.  It’s one thing to know that sometimes the agents of our government overstep their boundaries.  It’s another thing to realize that we’re doing it as a matter of policy.

We live with this ambigram of who we are as a people, what we do with that information, and how we self identify.  We do not torture, because we’re the good guys, and only evil people torture.  

But if we use “enhanced interrogation?”  Will that give us the excuse we need to pretend that there is no real torture supported by this government?

I wish it wouldn’t.  

But I think it’s fairly obvious that it does.



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