Review: The Elephant in the Brain

Title: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
Authors: Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
First published: 2018

Like all the books I read, this one came recommended: I chanced on a thread on Twitter about books that can forever change the way people see the world. The Elephant in the Brain was mentioned more than once; a little due diligence revealed that it was written by a software engineer (Robin) and a PhD student (Kevin). Being at the crossroads that I am in my life, I thought that it was an interesting partnership and I should probably read what they have to say.

First off, I must say that the book has indeed changed the way I see the world. Overall the book is like a ride with several mind twisting things to see. You just have to agree with most, and if you are stubborn enough, you disagree with some.

From this book, you learn that much of what we do, we do not just for ourselves but for the ‘benefit’ of others. We laugh to assure other human beings that we are in a playful mood. (What about when we cry and feel real sympathy for others? The theory does not seem to support crying!) We buy expensive stuff conspiciously and talk about our exotic vacations in order to show off to other human beings. When we give to charity, we want to be seen as generous and compassionate. When I write and share blog posts here in my public diary, I want to show you that not only do I read serious books, but I also take time to review them with my most exquisite writing skills. When we vote, we are trying to demonstrate loyalty to a party or group of people more than to a principle. Even when seeking medical care, we do it partly to get healthier but also to send a signal to other human beings that we are well cared for and supported, or that conversely we care for others. Simply put, we are more social (and self-serving) than we think.

The benefits of being more social and getting ahead in the rat race? Sex, and consequent proliferation of your gene pool. Second, social status.

Humans are living creatures through and through; we can’t transcend our biology any more than we can transcend the laws of physics. So if we define virtue as something that arises from nonbiological causes, we set a literally impossible standard.

There goes higher ideals. If you ever say/think that you give to charity because you have ideals for a better and egalitarian society, you are deluded. Think again. For we are all in a rat race to mate and reproduce and get ahead in the social scene.

Now our brains are so well adapted to this selfish social function that it can run on autopilot. And because there are social benefits to not knowing the real motives behind what we are doing, our brains have also become experts at making up reasons for the things we do. The elephant in the brain is then used in the book to represent the real motives which may be lost to our conscious awareness but which are the actual instigators of our actions.

One effect this book has had on me is that my brain has become highly suspect to me. The feeling that I am any kind of special, genuine, kind, honest, noble, etc, went down forty eight point three notches and I began to see my brain as one confabulating, treacherous monk in my head. Scheming little things. Oh you have a brain? How wonderful! I have one too! Imagine brains. We all have brains, everybody in the world. ‘Advanced’ brains. So imagine millions of ‘advanced’ brains. Some bigger than others, some deformed, some whole. Our brains are not so different. All the brains are adapted to social life. They all want to make you look socially acceptable. For God’s sake, the brain rots when we die. Ants eat it, whether it tastes delicious or salty I cannot tell.

Mehn, [insert four-letter word] brains.

If you think “But I am the owner of my brain,” certain social psychologists would reply, “You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going, ‘A most judicious choice, sire.’” You (your ego) are less in charge of your brain than you think. Some behaviours of ours are triggered by areas of our brain that are not accessible by our conscious awareness and so we end up like pathetic little press secretaries justifying the behaviours triggered by our brains.

A very interesting section of the book for me was the description of the experiments carried out by neuroscientists Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga on split-brain patients. The experiments revealed how the two hemispheres of the brain can work independently of each other. And when one hemisphere is put on the spot, so to speak, it tends to make up a reason to rationalize the behaviour of the other hemisphere.

Another profound section was the chapter on education, especially the section on Domestication as a hidden function of educational systems.

However, there are aspects of the book that made me to think, “Just come of it, this one does not fly.” For instance, I cannot possibly accept that human beings get atracted to people that waste resources (in form of religious sacrifices, time spent creating art, etc), because it signals that they have a lot. It feels that the authors are trying very hard to come up with an explanation for human behaviour. I think the extrinsic value of art is not that the artist spent (or wasted) resources making it, but that the artwork is rare, and not common. On the contrary, I (and, I am sure, many other people) admire artists who seem to create their art with ease.

In all, it was time well spent with this book.