Lesson 37- Genius and Prejudice
Before beginning, I would like to suggest that you might want to get a paper and pencil for this program since later there are examples that I will use that will require you to use them.
In my last program, I discussed the way that the two lobes of the brain deal with language. You might recall that although the right lobe of our brain is nonverbal and doesnt understand language, except for a few concrete nouns, it appears that it does have significant input into how language is used. This is probably because in the normal brain, where the communication link known as the corpus collosum has not been severed, there is a two way dialogue going on between them. Thus, the right lobe provides the tone and emotional expression in our language. Without it the left lobe would speak in a monotone, computer-like fashion. The right lobe also seems to influence the type of words that are chosen since, because it thinks in pictures, it prefers words that are picturesque. As a result, it is responsible for the symbolism found in poetry. It is also the source for metaphors, analogies, similes, and the use of double meaning words that are often the basis for jokes. Statements like life is just a bowl of cherries or he was bullish or bearish in the stock market, have either no meaning or a confused meaning for the left lobe with its literal use of words but they are full of meaning for the right lobe. The right lobe is also the source for slang and also what the left lobe considers obscene or dirty words.
Language is not the only thing that the right lobe affects. It also has an impact on how we write. Do you remember when, as students in a Catholic elementary school, we were all required to practice the Palmer Method in writing. I can still see those three horizontally, parallel lines which we were suppose to use as a guide as we wrote the letters of the alphabet. Did it ever occur to any of us that if the nuns had succeeded in teaching all of us to write the Palmer Method that we would all have the same handwriting. From the left lobes point of view, there is only one way to do anything and that is the right way. Thus, according to the Palmer Method, there was only one way to write each letter of the alphabet and we were not allowed to deviate from that way. Thus, the left lobe attempts to make everything uniform from the way we write to the way we dress and that is what a Catholic education was all about. It was about structure, discipline, and uniformity, all of which are left lobe traits.
However, the creative right lobe which resents structure, discipline, and uniformity is always playing around with them. Thus, all of us have put little curves, squigglies, and artistic loops in our writing which violate the Palmer Method style taught to us in school. Some of us have modified our writing only a little bit. For example, when I write the capital J in Joseph, I make the top loop with a triangle. However, other more daring and creative types have artistically modified their writing so much, that it is almost illegible. And, of course, the most creative among us are the grafittist who scrawl their tags on buildings and bridges all over our city.
By the way, this is one of those areas where we can apply St. Thomas rule about primary and secondary purposes. Remember, he said that secondary purposes are alright so long as their either help or at least dont interfere with primary purposes. The primary purpose of writing is to communicate our thoughts to others. The secondary purpose is to attract the eye of the reader or to express ourselves artistically. In other words, it is a classic conflict between the right lobe, which is concerned with form or how a thing looks, and the left lobe, which is concerned with function or how a thing works. So, how fancy or artistic should our handwriting be? The answer, applying St. Thomass rule, is only up to the point where it is still legible.
Handwriting experts tell us that handwriting often expresses the inner feelings and attitudes of the writer and I have one experience that seems to confirm this.
I once had a senior high school student who I thought had to be one of the most well adjusted students that I had ever taught. She was on my debate team and she was always laughing and bouncing around the school. After she graduated, she got an apartment with two other girls and began to attend a local university. Periodically she would call me up to discuss her classes. However, as time passed, the conversations became darker and darker in tone and it soon became apparent that she was contemplating suicide. Sometimes we would talk for hours until I felt convinced that she wasnt going to do it. However, one night, try as I might, I couldnt talk her out of it. When she hung up, I told my wife that I had to leave because I was fearful that she was going to go through with it.
I drove over to her apartment and her room mates told me she had just left. I told them of my concern and we jumped into my car and began scouring the neighborhood looking for her. We found her in store sitting at a counter and it was obvious that she had taken something. She collapsed after I put her in the back seat of my car. We rushed to the nearest hospital where they pumped out her stomach. After she had recovered from her overdose, they put her in a psychiatric ward for a few weeks for observations. Later, I learned that she had been depressed for years because of a family situation. While in the psychiatric ward, she wrote me a letter whose script was so small and tight that I could hardly read it.
When she got out of the hospital, she managed to finish college. Then she met a young man, fell in love, got married and moved to a rural area in New York State. A few years later, I received a large envelope which must have been two feet square. It was a letter from her telling me of her new life and what was most impressive was that the script was written in excessively large, bold letters. The moment I saw it I knew that a major shift in feelings and attitude had taken place in her. The letter from the psychiatric ward expressed someone who was trapped and fearful and this letter expressed freedom and joy. Truly, our handwriting style does seem to reveal something about our inner feelings and attitudes.
Well, did you get the pencil and paper that I suggested at the beginning of the program because I am now going to enter a topic where you might need them? One of the difficulties of radio is that you cant illustrate what you are saying on a blackboard and therefore whenever I reach a point in my discussion where I need to illustrate something I am frustrated because it is more difficult to describe something in words than it is to show it with a picture. However, I will do my best. If you cant obtain a pencil and paper, a good visual mind may be just as good.
As I ended my last program, I was saying that we should not get the erroneous opinion that the right lobe is something evil or negative and we definitely should not think that it is stupid. In truth, the right lobe is the source of genius because it is able to think non-literally and, as some people like to put it outside of the box. In other words, where the left lobe, being very focused and linear, is able to concentrate on the specifics, the right lobe, being non-focused and non-linear, is able to look at things from many points of view and therefore often comes us with creative solutions and insights which would never occur to the left lobe. It is because of this that it is a talented magician that is able to fool our left lobe through misdirection. In my last program, I illustrated this by describing a card trick that I do with my students which was based on a number of misdirections.
Now let me show you how the right lobe is able to think outside the box while the left lobe isnt. If, as I suggested, you got a paper and pencil, now is the time to use them.
On your paper draw three straight, vertical lines about two inches apart. Now here is the problem. Using only six more lines, create ten out of them. Now after you have solved that problem, take your pencil again and now draw four vertical lines about two inches apart. Using nine more lines, create nine out of them. At the beginning of my next program, I will tell you the solutions to the problems. Left lobe people who look at problems linear and logical will have a very difficult time solving this problem because they are too focused and literal. Right lobe people will have a better chance of solving it because they can see the problem from many points of view.
There is another talent that the right lobe has that helps to explain why it is the genius. You might remember that when the brain scientist first conducted their experiments on split brain patients that the right lobe was very good at putting puzzle together while the left lobe was horrible. In other words, the right lobe was good at completing incomplete patterns, which is what a puzzle is. Once again if you will take a paper and pencil, I will illustrate this point for you. Take the pencil and print the letter C. Then make an incomplete A consisting only of the left side and horizontal line in the center. Then make a straight vertical line, like the letter I. Now Ill ask both the left and right lobe what it is? The left lobe looks at it and say it is what it is. Nothing more, nothing less. In other words, the literal, factually oriented left lobe is unable to see what it might be and can only see what it really is. On the other hand, the right lobe looks at it and see that it could be an incomplete pattern. If you added a line to the right side of the incompleted A, it becomes the letter A. Then if you place a horizontal line on top of the last vertical line, it becomes the letter T and thus you have the word CAT. By going beyond the literal facts, the right lobe is able to make a creative educated guess. However, its guess might be right or it might be wrong because I just as easily make the last letter in the series into a P in which case it would be CAP or even into an R in which case it would be CAR.
This skill to go beyond the facts is what separates the men from the boys in science, which although it is a left lobe skill still has a right lobe component . It appears that there are different types of scientists: those that favor their left lobe and those that favor their right lobe. For example, a reporter who studied space scientists at Cape Canaveral observed that there were two types. The first type were those were were factually orientered. They were the number crunchers who sat at computers, entering and analyzing millions of facts related to the space shot. They were disciplined and focused but totally unimaginative. The second type were the scientist who, if you gave them a few facts, would build an entire theory of the universe on them. These were the creative geniuses who were able to go beyond the facts. Sometimes they were right and sometimes they were wrong but whatever they thought was highly imaginative and creative. They are visual thinkers Take for example, Albert Einstein who failed math, a left lobe skill, in school.
Einstein said that when he developed his famous theory of relativity that he used picture experiments. In one he imagined himself sitting on a beam of light traveling at 186,000 miles per second and in another one he imagined that he was falling through space in an elevator that was moving at the speed of light. As he pictured himself in these situation, he conducted mental experiments in which he would image how space and time were affected. Of course, after he had gained his initial insights upon which to create a theory, he had to test it mathematically to see if it was mathematically consistent with reality. In other words, the right lobe developed the theory but the mathematical left lobe had to test it.
The point of all this is that the illiterate right lobe is extremely creative and clever while the literate left lobe is simply intelligent. As a result, the right lobe, rather than the left lobe, is the source of genius, a word whose root comes from the same root as genii, which, as we all should know from Aladdin and His Lamp, possessed magical powers. And if our own dialectical brain is patterned after a Trinitarian God, with our right lobe reflecting the Creative Father and our logical left lobe reflecting Jesus the Logos or Logic of God, then Jesus statement that the Father is greater than Me! seems to correlate with our observation that the creative right lobe is greater than the logical left lobe.
However, a problem arises because the genius of the amoral right lobe, lacking a moral sense, is just as capable of being an evil genius as a good genius. This occurs when there is a lack of balance between the right and left lobes, and history is full of people, such as Adloph Hitler, who possessed a creative genius that was used for wrong purposes. As I mentioned in my last program, the prisoners I taught were some of the brightest people that I ever met but I wouldnt want to be on the receiving end of their genius. On the other hand, we have all benefited immensely from those geniuses who were able to combine the imaginative powers of their right lobe to the moral and ethical insight of the left lobe.
The right lobes ability at creating and interpreting incomplete patterns seems to be related to another interesting quality about human behavior: the practice of prejudice. The word prejudice comes from the prefix pre which means before and judice which means to judge. Thus prejudice means to judge before we have all the information. Contrary to popular opinion, prejudices are natural and good and we would not survive long without them. We, and animals, are constantly looking for patterns in reality so that we can predict what is going to happen before it happens. And, when we think that we have discovered a pattern that keeps repeating itself, we use it as a basis for predicting the future. In other words, we make prejudgments based on the patterns that we have discovered in reality.
Let me give you an example. I have a friend who has been robbed on three separate occasions by black men while waiting at a red light in his car. The first time, the man reached through the window and took the watch off his wrist. The second time, a man demanded that he give him some money, and the third time, a man took his wallet. By the third time his right lobe was beginning to suspect an incomplete pattern involving the two variable of black and man in relationship to red-lights. Therefore, he developed a prejudice based on his experience and every time he is waiting for a red-light and he sees a black man he rolls up his window, locks his doors, and begin to consider an escape route.
Now some people may say that he is racially prejudice but that is only part of the story. The full truth is that he, just like all of us, is trying to detect patterns in reality so that he can avoid dangers and thus he looks for some identifiable variable which he can use to predict danger before it happens. In this case, race and sex were identifiable qualities or variables. These, however, may not be the true variables but they are the most obvious. For example, all three of the men who robbed him may have come from dysfunctional families and that is why they are thieves, not because of their race or sex. But, there is no way that he can see this and so he went for what he could see.
Now the left lobe, seeing everything as specific and separate, would see each case as being independent and therefore would resist the temptation to generalize. In other words, it wouldnt make a prejudgment. The right lobe, just as it was inclined to complete the incomplete pattern involving CAT is always inclined to move from the specific to the general and that is why I think that it is the source of prejudice.
We are inclined to think of racial prejudice when we use the word but the fact is that we have numerous types of prejudices. In fact, whenever we create a pattern based upon previous experience upon which we make judgments, we are reacting to a prejudice.
Years ago, before I ever heard of the right and left lobe, I concluded that prejudices were located in our emotions rather than in our logic. Since I was teaching all black students who thought that all prejudice was racial, I decided to demonstrate their own prejudices about food. I challenged them to eat chocolate covered insects. Immediately, their faces screwed up in disgust at the thought of eating an insect. I asked them what the problem was? Some said that insects were nasty tasting; others said they would make you sick; still others said that they werent good for you. These were all attempt to give a logical reason for not eating insects which I responded to with a logical answer. I asked the students whether they had ever tasted an insect. No, they said. Then how can you say that they tasted nasty? Then I asked if they ever knew of someone who got sick from eating insects. Again, they answered No! Then how could they say that eating insects would make a person sick? Finally, I pointed out that more people in the world eat insects which are very high in protein than ate beef and that insects were considered to be very good for your health. They didnt have a logical leg to stand on. But it made no difference because their real opposition was in their emotions and not in their logic. They werent going to eat insects no matter how much evidence I presented and, since I now know how the right lobe communicates, the disgusted looks on their faces indicated that the source of the opposition was the right lobe.
Later, I bought about three dozen of assorted insects which included chocolate covered ants, bees, grasshoppers, and roaches. In order to induce the students to try them I had to eat one of each myself. In order to do so, I had to overcome my own revulsion. The ants werent too bad. They tasted like as Nestle Crunch Bar. The bee was a little tougher because there was a leg sticking out of the chocolate. The grasshopper was a little bitter but it was the roach that was most difficult. When I bit into it, I heard a crunch and I almost lost it.
Now, as I described eating these insects were you paying attention to your own reactions? Did your face screw up? Did you find yourself going Uuugh!? Did you feel your own revulsion as you imagine me eating a roach. Which lobe of the brain do you think was the source of all these reactions? So which brain is making a prejudgment based on insufficient evidence?
A few years later, I was doing a series of radio program called the Sane Society for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. I received a letter from a listener who was an ex-Catholic who was now a member of a Unitarian church in Media. He was a regular listener and he wanted to know if I would accept an invitation to speak at his church. The topic was to be on prejudice. I agreed and a date was set.
When I arrived, I sensed that I was in for an interesting morning. I had never been in a Unitarian church and the first thing that I notice was that there didnt seem to be any symbols that would identify it as a Christian church. There was somebody playing classical music on the piano, followed by another person who read a poem. The only symbol that I noticed was a small, votive candle lit on a table that was the closest thing to an altar in the church.
The congregation, which I later learned was about 50% ex-Catholics, was composed of intellectual types, many of whom looked like they might be professors in colleges and universities. They were intellectual liberals who had bought heart and soul into all the liberal causes of the 60s and 70s and I knew what they expected me to say about prejudices.
Prior to my talk, they played a song from the movie South Pacific called You Have To Be Carefully Taught. In the movie, it was sung by an actor playing a Marine captain who had fallen in love with a Polynesian girl and wanted to marry her. However, Marine regulations blocked marrying any of the native population. In disgust, he sings the song which says that we have to be carefully taught to be prejudice because, if we werent, we would not be prejudice against anybody or anything. I knew right away that I was in trouble because the first thing that I had to announce to the congregation was that I disagreed with their song. I thought that all prejudices were part of a natural mechanism which we, and all animals, needed to survive.
I could almost feel the congregation bristle and it was clear that I had hit a raw nerve. I proceeded to explain my position. Suppose, I said, that your wife or daughter read in the paper that a woman had been brutally attacked and raped in Camden by a man with a patch over his left eye and a limp. However, the police arrested him and he was in jail. Then the following day, it was reported that another woman was attacked and raped in South Philadelphia by a man with a patch over his left eye and a limp but he was also caught and thrown in jail. The next night, again it was reported that the same thing happened in Germantown and once again the man was caught and put in jail. Now your wife or daughter are coming home late at night and there is a man with a patch over his left eye and a limp who is coming towards her. Would anyone blame her if she made a prejudgment about him and took evasive actions?
Or suppose any of them were coming home late at night on a dark, tree lined street and they saw five teenage boys coming towards them from the other end of the block. Would they assume that they were five Jehovah Witnesses out on a late night call or would it occur to them that this could be a dangerous situation and begin to think of turning around, crossing the street, or some other type of evasive action?
Well, my talk went over like a lead balloon and they couldnt wait to get at me during the questioning period at the end. One professorial looking man stood up and angrily declared that he had two little grandsons and they werent prejudice. I said that I disagreed. They were prejudice towards the known and against the unknown because they, like all children, shied away from strangers and moved towards people they knew. By doing this they are making a prejudgment that the unknown is dangerous and the known is safer and thank God that they do. Also, they, like the rest of us, will begin to accumulate patterns based on their experiences upon which they will make prejudgments.
As I prepared to leave, my hosts son, a nice young man in his early twenties came up to me and indicated that he liked and agreed with my talk. As we talked, we were approached by a woman who declared that she was an anthropologist and she said that she disagreed with me because if I were right about everybody being prejudice, then nobody could ever change. I said that this wasnt true. People change all the time but, when they do, they just swap one set of prejudices for another set. Archie Bunker was as much of a stereotype for liberals as Step-n-Fetch-It was for conservatives. Also, I was born in a racist neighborhood and shared in its racists attitudes, yet I worked for civil rights in the 60s and 70s. She said, Well, why didnt you say so! I thought you were a racist! The hosts son smiled and said, You just proved his point. Based on his talk, you thought you knew all about him and you made prejudgments about who he was. I could have kissed him.
Unfortunately, when we talk about prejudices to young people we often give them the right answer for the wrong reason. Certainly there are times when prejudices can be wrong and unacceptable but there are many times when they are right and acceptable. If we werent prejudice, we would have trouble crossing the street. In the past, we have all seen that cars stop when the light turns red and thus, when we step out into the street, we are making a prejudgment based on patterns observed from previous experience. If we took the left lobe position that all events are singular and specific, we would never be able to cross the street until we had witnessed every car stopping. Thus, prejudices serve us well most of the time. A problem arises however when our prejudices lead to injustice. For example, after graduating from Little Flower High School, my wife applied for a secretarial job at a Philadelphia hospital. The office manager, a Jewish lady, hired her immediately without any testing because she said that in the past she had other girls from Little Flower and they were exceptional secretaries. Now suppose that there were four other girls from other high school applying for the job and my wife was hired without giving the other girls an opportunity to display their skills. This would be unfair and, in this case, the mechanism of prejudice would lead to injustice. Although we might not blame the woman who turned around when she saw a limping man with a patch over his left eye coming towards them or any of us taking evasive actions when we are confronted by five teenage boys on a dark street because both actions might have saved them from serious harm and there was no harm done to the others, we certainly would have to agree that the office manager was not facing any imminent danger and could have easily tested the other girls. Therefore, the real problem is not prejudices because they are natural and necessary. The real problem is injustice which occurs when our prejudices cause us to be unfair to others. In these instances, we should attempt to ignore our preconceptions and to seek out the available facts connected to the situation.
There is more that I would like to say on this topic but I see that my time is up. When I return next week, I will put a few finishing touches on the topic of prejudice and the say something about discrimination and stereotypes. I realize that I am covering a lot of ground in these talks and I wonder whether my audience is able to absorb it all. Therefore, I suggest that for those who are really interested in this topic that you order tapes from Dom.