Can We Be More Tolerant?

en in humanity • 8 min read

Let’s talk about vaccination. I think vaccination is good in general. It helped eradicate smallpox, and many other nasty diseases are on the way to becoming extinct; they are probably already considered eradicated in your region. A vaccine to boost the immune system against SARS-CoV-2 is also beneficial, in my opinion. I think vaccinating is our only shot to deal with the epidemic. It’s our best way to take, even though it’s not a silver bullet. There is enough scientific proof for that. But all that doesn’t matter.

Let’s leave vaccination aside, and let’s talk about the brain instead. The brain is an exciting part of our body. The brain is very small relative to our body (about two percent of body weight), yet it consumes the most energy (about 20 percent of the energy produced by the body). That’s why thinking is soo expensive and hard! We are capable of amazing things, but for a price.

Our brain creates connections, or synapses, all the time. Everything that we have seen, heard, felt, tasted, smelled, or simply experienced is somehow stored. But not the same way as it is done with files on your pocket computer. You cannot see something, store that view, and extract it a year later to identify the robber mirrored in your friend’s glasses, like in some TV show.

We store information differently. Our brain has several sections, and each part is responsible for something else. There is a section for vision, another for speech, the next for hearing, etc. The brain then stores your experience all over the areas.

For example, years ago, I failed to create zucchini pie. It was not good, and we had to throw it away. First, I tasted the pie. The taste was sent from taste buds to my brain section taking care of that. If I drank regular water instead, I wouldn’t probably notice anything. There would be no attention, and I could easily forget I had a glass of water. But this was a different, specific, and way too horrible experience. Thus, the brain was alarmed to pay attention and store this information (to remember it for the future) by creating a strong synopsis. That means connecting the visual part of zucchini and the pie with this experience. Today, whenever I think about pie and zucchini, I follow those synapses, which are also connected with that unpleasant experience (simple pie or zucchini only doesn’t have to do the trick).

That’s, in short, how the brain works. I don’t remember any specific detail of the raw zucchini, the resulting pie, what I wore, what my wife was doing at that time, or what else we were eating, anything. That was not my focus, there wasn’t my attention, and therefore no synapsis was created, and I cannot remember any of it. I didn’t forget it because I never remembered such details. And I don’t know even details of the unpleasant event—only the vague outcome.

Small side note: there is a fantastic book about brain and memory I recommend reading if you want to understand it in detail: Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting by Lisa Genova.

Since then, I have never tried to make a zucchini pie again. I never had a reason to do so. Just retrieving the experience is enough to skip it and continue with my life without such pie. It’s very reasonable to do so even though it might not make sense from a statistical point of view.

Mathematically speaking, there is almost zero chance you never do anything wrong. Moreover, when you try something for the first time. So, logically, it doesn’t make sense to avoid it.

And here comes the fight between two brains, one fast and the other slow. Thinking is expensive, even though there is not much difference if you think or not. Your brain is operating and consuming your valuable energy all the time. The challenge is you need to evaluate too many situations every day. Our brain can handle that using the fast brain, but a lot of outputs will be wrong. If you want to come to the best result every single time, you might not finish anything in your lifetime.

We can compare it to chess: limit each move to one second, and surely you make tons of mistakes on the way, but you can play a lot of (bad) games in your lifetime. Have no limit; feel free to think about every move for years, and you or your opponent die before you get to the exciting part of the match.

Another book recommendation about fast and slow brains: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. (I wrote a few notes in Czech about the book here.)

Clearly, any extreme is not much helpful. Therefore, we need to look for compromises. That’s hard because we should think critically and have no mercy. There is a lot of flawed things we consider for granted. I think we should not accept anything just because. The problem is, we cannot do that for every single detail.

And here comes the fight between two kinds of people. The first group, who stays in a comfort zone and simply accepts what family, friends, or colleagues accept. Because math and statistics are hard, you need to pause and truly think about it for a while before making any conclusion. That conclusion can even be against your intuition! Meanwhile, your friend has some good explanations which can fit your understanding of the world way better. That is, it can better suit your experience.

For example, when I go to a restaurant and look around for a dessert after a meal, I might see two choices—Zucchini and chocolate pie. I love chocolate. Seeing pie and chocolate together promptly touches the connection in my brain, leading to pleasure, while pie and zucchini go to distaste at best. If I don’t think about it, my choice is clear. Only when I think about it, I might logically deduce I could try out (open my eyes) how zucchini pie should taste and order that one instead.

The second type is those who are able not just to use logic but also leverage the knowledge of statistics and act based on this, which is quite hard. We are just a complex mix of chemical reactions (I mean it, we are just more complex flower), therefore it’s hard to follow logic instead.

You need to practice logic a lot in order to start using it naturally already with fast thinking, not only when practicing the slow one. It’s like with any expertise. Based on a study by Anders Ericsson, there is a saying that you need to practice anything (in a correct way) for 10 thousand hours before being professional. That’s almost 30 years if you practice every single day for an hour.

Indeed, we are a unique species. We can learn anything. It just takes time. No one can absorb everything. Sadly. Life is about choosing priorities. So someone decides to focus on something not connected to math or logic or statistics, and thus such person is following feelings more. And then someone else who practices logic every day follows both emotions and logic. Yes, feelings don’t go away; we are not Vulcans.

I think this is the root of the fight issue. It’s okay there are such two kinds of people. The problem is that the one trying to be logical forgets it’s not natural and that even him- or herself is acting based on the feelings. At least that’s my explanation why someone intelligent (at least they think that about themselves) attacks unintelligent persons (at least how the intelligent one perceives others).

Let’s go back to the vaccination now. There is a war initiated by anti-vaxxers. It’s sad for sure, but I’m more concerned about anti-anti-vaxxers. The counter-attack, let’s say, is not much helpful. I’m an optimistic person, but I’m under no illusion there are not people spreading disinformation on purpose. Yet, I don’t think people are genuinely evil. In my opinion, most anti-vaxxers truly believe in their beliefs, and we should try to understand why that is and what we could or should do about it instead of shaming.

Why? Because shaming helps no one. Even if it’s just gentle pressure to get a vaccine or against the wrong beliefs, it is a personal attack for that person. When anything is attacking us, we don’t cooperate. We do anything for survival. Think about your strong belief; what would you do if someone told you it’s a wrong belief, no matter if that would be correct or not?

And the problem is more profound. Vaccination is vital, and it’s great that we have it, but it’s no silver bullet either. Many people can have good reasons why not to get a shot. Those people have nothing to do with anti-vaxxers. They want to survive the same way as everyone. But anti-anti-vaxxers don’t care. In the end, I think anti-anti-vaxxers are the same as anti-vaxxers, just with different backgrounds. They just happened to follow the herd to get shot, instead to avoid it, but surely are not more intelligent than others, how they present themselves in discussions.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not categorizing anyone. I just feel that there are way too many vaccinated people humiliating non-vaccinated ones for being stupid. But it seems that the drive behind it is simple fear. Actually two, the first fear of epidemic itself, and the second one fed by governments that spread stories how non-vaccinated people are the root of the issue for everyone. It’s not true.

That’s why I don’t see the difference between anti-vaxxers and anti-anti-vaxxers. Both groups are acting based on feelings only; in this case, fear. There is no logic behind it. Both groups just follow the stories which fit their views better. Logic failed; feelings won. And I’m more concerned about the latter group because this is the mainstream at this moment, and they think more about themselves.

It’s hard to do anything about it. If you want to help, no matter your belief, I have simple advice: be tolerant. When someone attacks you, try to open a discussion (or let it be if the other side is not interested) instead of attacking back. Listen to others’ arguments and respect there might be a different point of view. Everyone connected their synapses differently, and that’s okay.

I think we all lack toleration a lot.

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en Human History: We Are Animals, June 29, 2020
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en Our Fake Stories are Flawed, January 6, 2021
en New Religion: Climate Change, February 1, 2021

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