Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mad Libs & the Dimensions of Thought

A study from University College London published this week in Current Biology has discovered that there are actually differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives. Specifically, liberals' brains tend to be bigger in the area that deals with processing complex ideas and situations, while conservatives' brains are bigger in the area that processes fear.
(via GOOD)

…The study was based on 90 "healthy young adults" who reported their political views on a scale of one to five from very liberal to very conservative, then agreed to have their brains scanned.
(via AFP)


They reported their political views on a scale of one to five? I have no idea where I’d put myself on that scale. It doesn’t even make sense to me.

We take the figure of the Political Spectrum for granted, but it's just that — a figure. And a one-dimensional one, at that. If your ideas differ from mine, they can only differ in two directions: left or right. But I think we need at least four dimensions to capture the complex nature of ideas. Opinions are slippery, malleable, and always in motion. Shine a light on them, and they change.

But when we try to squeeze these exquisite and subtle creatures into the blunt figure of the Political Spectrum, they shrink and wither. This is something we have to resist, because if we don't, it will change the way we think — for the worse. If you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and if you’ve got a powerful metaphor that claims to represent viewpoint, everything looks dumbed down.

When I tell people I don’t identify as liberal or conservative — that I object to the very notion of such labels — they usually respond in one of two ways:

1. By conceding that no, labels are not perfect, but we need some common ground to discuss things, to compare and contrast.
2. By claiming that my failure to stake out a position is a copout.

Fine. But the notion of calling myself a liberal or a conservative fills me with disgust — a personal, not a political, disgust. It’s not that I reject certain tenets of these ideologies, it’s that I reject the oversimplification that permeates our thinking, our being. Even if it would make things easier. Even if it means being annoying.

My favorite people have the ability to surprise me. Their opinions on one issue don’t give away their whole body of thought like some domino-liberal or conservative whose beliefs always fall according to plan. These people demand time and attention and are forever slipping out of grasp just when you think you’ve got a hold of them. It’s frustrating and exhilarating and there are no shortcuts.

Remember Mad Libs? You feed a list of verbs, nouns, and adjectives to your friend, who fills in the blanks and reads you back a story of delightful non-sequiturs. Sentences seem to be heading one way, but then veer off unpredictably. Grammar is intact but the rhythm of language is distorted. We’re used to sentences gathering a certain momentum and taking off in predictable ways. But with Mad Libs, it’s impossible to know where a sentence will end up. It’s ridiculous, but in its best moments, it can create a resonant, meaningful ridiculousness.

Let’s treat people — let’s treat life — more like Mad Libs.


  1. Amen! The level of political discourse in this country, especially in San Francisco, is embarrassingly simplistic, knee-jerk, conservative in the true sense of the word: everyone is locked into their opinions which have been framed by an inane media. Even their critiques of the media come from the media.

    I find it best to avoid such discussions, at least face to face. Ergo, the blog where we can hold forth in all the complexity we want without being interrupted by some douche bag who says we're copping out.

  2. Daaaniel: Avoidance is probably the wisest strategy, but sometimes I can't help it. I like to argue.

    But there's nothing worse than being in a conversation with someone when they tell me "you just like to argue." Because actually, as I think you've written about before, what I'm talking about isn't arguing in the oppositional sense, where everyone has to take a side. It's like, let's turn this cool shiny object around in our hands together and discuss the different ways the light hits it.