Why did Donald Trump Stress the Importance of Building a Wall on the Mexican Border?
If you’re on the left, could it be because he is racist or is catering to racists?
If you’re on the right, might it be because he wants to cut down on immigration which will open jobs for US citizens?
Do you have a different reason that you’re sure caused this?
We all have this model about how we make decisions. There are all these things we know. There are our desires and wants. We weigh the two and then decide on and take action on a plan to reach the things we desire. There must be some view of the world and some set of desires that drives every decision, and once we understand that for any action, we have the explanation and that part of the story is complete.
The drive to ascribe reasons to actions and decisions that people make is part of what has defined being human. Philosophers call it the Theory of Mind. The human mind is either pre-wired or pre-disposed to learn that the way people make decisions and take actions is that they have a collection of beliefs or facts, and another collection of desired states, and that the brain looks at the desired state, analyzes what exists and then decides on and executes actions to move to the desired state.
We all use this theory of mind to explain what we and others have done, and to predict what we and others will do. We are the only species on the planet (that neuroscientists know of) that are capable of this as it requires not just conscious thought, but also expressive language. There is evidence that humans have been able to do this for at least 50,000 years, and that by the time infants are 6 months old, they have already formulated the theory of mind and are acting on it (“Oh, mommy is looking at that object and saying this sound, so she must be using that sound to mean that object.”)
There is just one problem with this understanding of decision making. Our knowledge of the brain has expanded so much in the last 35 years that neuroscientists now know that it’s not actually the way the brain operates.
As neuroscientists have been able to more finely track how neurons work, what the different parts of the brain actually do, and how they all work together, they’ve been able to determine that, while the Theory of Mind is useful in many circumstances, that’s not at all what happens in the brain.
Following is a simplification (probably an oversimplification) of what Alex Rosenberg explains in How History Gets Things Wrong, The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories.
Neuroscientists have been able to trace interactions in the brain and record in what part of the brain they occur and when. There are specific cells in the brain that are triggered by location information. Others that are triggered by speed. Others that are triggered by happiness, and others by anger, hunger, sex, visual stimuli, etc. There is a region in the brain where decisions are made and others where actions are triggered. And still others that are involved in conscious thought.
By watching these different parts, and when they are triggered, scientists have been able to determine that the neurons that make decisions fire up before the ones that are involved in consciousness.
Basically, the brain makes decisions based on the activation of neurons that are located in a completely different part of the brain than the ones involved with conscious thought. Milliseconds after the decisions are made and (usually) after signals are sent to start acting on the decisions, the hippocampus sends signals to the conscious mind, which then essentially justifies the decision and provides what we consider the “reasoning” behind it. But crucially, the decision has already been made.
So all the reasons we give for why we do things and why others do them are basically all wrong. Those are just the stories that our conscious mind has made up for decisions that our unconscious mind already made.
If we are all making decisions based not on logic and careful consideration, what are the implications? To me, a big lesson is to accept that decisions are more likely to be fallible. And if decisions are likely to be wrong, then it becomes even more important to be sensorily acute to feedback, iterating based on highly adaptive feedback loops. In other words, be flexible and don’t dwell as long on making the “correct” decision. There is an old saying that you can’t steer a bicycle if it’s not moving, but even if it’s initially moving in the wrong direction, you can adjust and change course.
Perhaps we can explore these with Matt Joseph in the Edchat Interactive on Active Learning Strategies in the Classroom.
So, why did Donald Trump stress the importance of building a wall on the Mexican border?
That’s a trick question.
For the same reason he and we all decide and do anything. A series of chemical and electronic impulses in his hippocampus that were not logic or content-based started him and kept him going in that direction. All the other reasons are just stories he or we tell. Success will go to those who use feedback best to adjust their strategies and actions.