Science – making sense of “crazy”.

Posted on January 24, 2011


Peter: ” How does science help us make sense of crazy behavior? Sure they give fancy names to people doing weird things – usually with a lot of gobbledygook about brain stuff . But how’s a normal guy like me to make sense of what makes people act crazy.”

Jenny: ” A normal guy like you? And we don’t call them crazy, you call them cognitively challenged, or emotionally disturbed.”

Professor Wiggly: “Remember I said that science tries to fill unknown spaces – our ignorance – with a few observational check points and fills in the big gaps in our knowledge with theories or assumptions. At present, when trying to make sense of so-called ‘crazy’  or abnormal behavior – like the Tucson shooter – ‘experts’ will  talk about ‘observations’ based on brain imaging machines. Back a few years ago, before they had such machines, the experts focused attention on observations or studies of the patients early experience – the hit parade theory then was ‘how the twig is bent so grows the tree’, abnormal behavior was thought to be caused by cold mothering, dysfunctional home life, etc.  The hit parade theory now is that ‘ twisted thoughts arise from  twisted molecules or faulty neurons in the brain’. But these theories don’t help ‘normal’ people like Peter make sense of behavior of the Tuscon shooter. ”

Jenny: ” Well what kind of observations and theories can help Peter and me make sense of such senseless behavior?”

Professor Wiggly:” First you have to forget your current belief or bias – your emotionally anchored assumpution –  that most of our decisions are based on the rational anaysis of reliable evidence. I hate to do this to you, but remember Herb Simon and his Nobel prize? His theory  or mantra states no decisions without emotionally anchored assumptions (or biases). The beauty of this theory is both its simplicity and it’s reach. It’s simple enough to remember ( our decsions and behavior are based on biases) and everyone can think of examples that fit the theory .  Well, you can think of examples of other peoples behavior that fit the theory. You’ll have trouble recognizing your own biases becuse they’re emotionally anchored – that’s their value they enable you to make trusted decisons about uncertain situations, about the future. If you’re a Republican you can identify biases – crazy thinking – in a Democaratics decisions or behavior, and visa versa. Smart people disagree violently,  for instance they disagree about what caused the recent economic meltdown – each side cherry-picking from the available sprinkling of observations those that support their  political bias, their particular emotionally anchored assumptions. Not only do they argue about the past but they also argue violently about the future – an unknown space without any observational check points or foundations to support their imaginary bridges reaching into that unknown and unknowable future.  So what supports those bridges? Nothing but emotionally based assumptions. People fight wars over unknown futures, they kill each other along with their their women and children over unknown futures. So it should come as no surprise that a 22 year man in Tuscon ‘should go to war’  with people he perceives – based on his emotional anchored assumptions – to be screwing up the future – including his future.  Even if the collateral damage – like that of all war – includes women and children. After all his is in a nobel cause – a nobel cause based on trusted biases.”

Peter: ” Come on Professor, you’re not trying to sell me on the simple idea that most arguments, fights or  assaults – including that of the Tuscon shooter – are all caused by the same thing, by the fact that whatever threatens our emotionally anchored assumptions about the future triggers aggressive behavior including arguing, name calling, fighting, shooting. Come to think of it shooting people is a popular method – we shot Lincoln, both Kennedy’s, Reagan, John Lennon… the list goes on.”

Jenny: ” Oh I remember reading about the fight or flight theory of  behavior. When threatened some of us run and some attack – the Tuscon shooter attacked. But your saying – along with Simon the bounded rationality guy – that when dealing with big, unknown spaces – like the future – we lack both the rational capacity and observations or evidence to make accurate decisions, so we have no choice but to rely on trusted, emotionally anchored assumptions. They’re irrational, or non-rational because their based on biases – not on reliable evidence about the future because such evidence doesn’t exist.”

Peter: ” And he’s also saying that crazy people are doing the same thing except that their emotionally anchored biases are different from most other people. I guess the investment bankers that helped cause the latest economic crises caused a lot more pain to a lot more people with their model of the future, that the Tuscon shooter?”

Professor Wiggly: ” It’s not only Simon and me that claim that our decisions are based on automatic behavior based on biases, so is the famous philosopher Dan Dennett (check him out on google at his talk on consciousness). He claims our behavior is based on teams of mini-robots, on networks of neurons that fire automatically – according to him we have no free will – we’re like back seat drivers, yacking away but with no control over the wheel. So the Tuscon shooter can claim that his teams of mini-robots, his neurological nets ‘made him do it!”

Posted in: Sciencing