Politics IN the Mind

the_political_mind_lakoffGeorge Lakoff’s excessively subtitled The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain tries to make sense of our political behavior in terms of cognitive science.  I first encountered Lakoff through an author event podcast and was intrigued enough to pick up his book at the PCI branch library.

Lakoff starts off with the idea that these United States of America were founded on progressive Enlightenment ideals like Man being a rational being and Reason a dispassionate, logical, fact-based process.  Therefore, we can come together in enlightened self interest and form a more perfect union.  Today’s traditional Progressive movement (AKA Liberals) operate on these Old Enlightenment principles which sound pretty good to me, frankly.

Cognitive science is drawing a new picture of reason as a mostly unconscious process depending on a labyrinth of intertwined frames, narratives, and metaphors whose weight in neural network terms is inextricably related to the emotional content and frequency of activation.  The Conservatives have embraced this model, consciously or not, and have dominated the political discussion by controlling fundamental cognitive elements to speak to this cognitive unconscious in ways the progressives haven’t.

Putting politics aside for a moment, what really fascinated me was the idea that basic abstractions like frames, metaphors, and narratives are neural building blocks of cognition that give rise to such structures in language rather than the previously “obvious” other way around.  How this works/maps/associates are part of a picture too big to draw in a blog post, so I’d suggest starting with Lakoff’s Wikipedia page and branching out from there.  Or you could just listen to the podcast and read the book.  I’ll wait.  There’s still plenty of debate, but there’s also real science about it in the journals and the overall idea generates that “Aha!” gut feeling from that 98% back-seat-driver latching onto something.

Zombie Outline Remember that myth about only using 10% of our brains?  The body wouldn’t lavish brains with so much food and oxygen and protection (probably why zombies find them so tasty) if they were such underachievers.                 

We use it all, but the surprise is that maybe 2% of cognitive activity is conscious.  The part you think of as you, the conscious you, is literally just the tip of the iceberg.  Human brains are also the product of millions of years of redundant, conflicting evolutionary development with lots of crazy mind hacks to do some things really well, like spotting tigers, that also make us easy to deceive and confuse in unnatural situations, like Presidential elections perhaps. They are a crazy mess, about as confusing and impenetrable as quantum physics when viewed through the lens of daily experience.  That’s why these discoveries by cognitive science are so remarkable.

The rest of what’s going on in your head is completely hidden from “the conscious you”, so it’s not surprising that people act against their own (conscious self) interests or have to rationalize things that appear to just pop into their heads (conscious selves).  Simple methods like repetition and selective framing can have an enormous impact on these hidden processes because they are literally altering brains.  Activating a particular frame sets off neural cascades that strengthens pathways to related frames and weakens to opposing frames.

Lakoff claims that the pervasive “nation is a family” metaphor defines the dividing line between conservative and progressive as the association of the nation frame to authoritarian or nurturing parenting styles.  He dances around gender biases that manifest themselves in our political discourse when Arnold talks about “girly-girl democrats”.  Try not to think of the 2006-2008 Democratic-majority Congress as wimps who can’t even fight like girls.  It’s an uncomfortable notion that such a simple dichotomy is the basis of our political conflict, but it rings true.  Of course people aren’t completely one or the other. Self-identifying conservatives often have progressive views on a few issues and vice versa; all kinds of environmental factors might kick an individual association in a different direction or reinforce it.

All this neural network entanglement means that relentlessly hammering home a subset of conservative issues (equal rights for gays, abortion, immigration, etc.) will also reinforce the overall conservative frame while suppressing the overall progressive frame.  The Republican Propoganda machine excels at this, and their efforts over the last 30 years are responsible for changing brains according to Lakoff.  Their claim of America as a Right-leaning nation isn’t as much about the inherent nature of the country as a result of relentless brainwashing changing.  It’s also more GOP revisionist history, like claiming America has always been a Christian nation because of God Talk on our currency and in our Pledge while neglecting the fact that  1950s McCarthyism added the God Talk to separate ourselves from the Godless Communists.  Ironically, it’s an homage to one of the greatest revisionist history machines of all time, The Soviet Union.

Lakoff tries to weave these ideas into a New Enlightenment framework for Progressives to start operating effectively against the Right.  This approach is one of the book’s weaknesses; while there’s plenty of meaty content, it feels disorganized in the first two thirds without a clearer separation between science and agenda. The lack of diagrams is also vexing, especially since he goes into a long-winded explanation of a rooted, directed graph when a picture would have made it immediately obvious.  I’ll chalk that up to his bias as a cognitive linguist.  It’s still a worthwhile if sometimes slow read.


I’ve noticed people like Barak Obama and Rachel Maddow talking about frames since reading this book.  I think it’s less conscious in Obama’s case since he violates the key principle of reframing as often as he applies it, like continuing to use the “War on Terror” frame. If Lakoff is right, the gambit of speaking the opposition’s language rarely pays off because those frames are linked to and reinforce other Conservative frames while inhibiting Progressive ones, something Pierre Sprey also notices on Bill Moyers Journal.

A friend responded to my Human Behaviour post with this interview with Jonathan Haidt, a “social and moral psychologist”.  I couldn’t have chosen a better example of how soft sciences alone keep missing the mark.  It’s hard to take Haidt’s position seriously after bringing brains, neural networks, and the cognitive framework Lakoff describes into the picture. Maybe I should send Haidt a copy of the book and the URL for RadioLab’s amazing episode on Morality.

Next, The Obama Effect, Perhaps

Human Behaviour

A most incomprehensible human, Bjork, on Human Behavior 


Bjork Weighs In

Part of my whole INTJ thing is wanting people to make sense, but they don’t.  Me included.

I don’t believe in contrivances like souls to explain who we are; it’s a result of our physical being, particularly our brains, and the experiences that shape us.  Understanding this wasn’t just about basic scientific curiosity.  Coming to terms with being gay was an act of examination and introspection:  Why was I this way?  Could I change it?  Why did I think one thing, feel another, and behave regardless of either?  Why can’t I understand myself in silicon terms?

Fortunately you can drive a car without knowing how to build one from scratch. I came up with good-enough answers to establish a lasting peace between the conscious me and everything else, anatomy included.  More complete answers are coming from cross-pollenating harder sciences like evolutionary biology and neuroscience with overly-touchy-feely “sciences” like psychology. Popularizers like Sagan and Dawkins recognized it thirty years ago, and we’re starting to enjoy the fruits of a generation of multidisciplinary scientists–and not a moment too soon!

I’ve come to terms with my self, but the last eight years have left me bewildered and pessimistic about the species as a whole and especially Americans: Why do values voters willfully ignore their own self interest?  Why are Republicans still whipping the political asses of the Democrats?  How did a country founded on radically progressive Enlightenment ideals turn into a police state in a handful of years?  Why has the 20th century scientific powerhouse fallen into religious fundamentalism?  Why don’t people make sense?

Next, Politics IN the Mind

Portland Group to Rally in Support of Mayor Sam Adams – Towleroad

Portland Group to Rally in Support of Mayor Sam Adams – Towleroad

Adams & Breedlove
From Towleroad.com

Which of the following points is at the heart of the controversy around Portland’s mayor?

  • Adams lied when questioned about it.
  • Adams asked Breedlove to lie.
  • Breedlove was an intern at the time.
  • Breedlove is a much younger legal adult.

My guess is it’s the last one.  Society has its opinions on older-man/younger-woman and older-woman/younger-man, but here we have the 21st century equivalent of the previous century’s most common ignorant question, “Which one of you is the woman in the relationship?”  If Breedlove truly was legal at the time, this shouldn’t be an issue and shouldn’t bring down Adams’s career. We’ll know in the next few days if he’s stepping down.

Gay culture is pathologically youth-obsessed, and doesn’t have the same reproductive viability issues as straight couples.  The mores around age difference are very different; I personally have dated men 15 years my senior and 15 years my junior.  It wasn’t all chickenhawks preying on the weak and defenseless: Try saying no to a persistent, handsome, younger man like Beau Breedlove–that’s a Bond Girl name if I’ve ever heard one BTW.

Greater visibility for gays, critical for winning equal civil rights, will continue to be a bumpy road as these cultural differences surface.  Fasten your seat belts …


I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this. In place of a dark lord you would have a queen, not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea, stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love me and despair!


I’m as happy as the next Progressive to be rid of the Mordor-spawn of the last eight years.  However, Gollum W. Bush left the One Ring waiting in the White House–unrestrained executive power–and Obama inspires a fervor that I find a little chilling.  Will he pass the test, refuse the ring, and remain Obama?

Daily Show Nails ObamaSpeak & Robinson Checkmates Stewart

The Daily Show nails one of my concerns with the Obama Presidency.  I was happy to hear Obama talk up the importance of science; he sounded like he really meant it.  The problem is that he sounds like he really means everything he says, including some things out of the Inaugural Speech that, as the clip shows, might have been lifted directly out of a Bush speech:

Kudos to Bishop Gene Robinson for his short segment on the same program with his sharp sense of humor and genuine self-effacing style.  He won me over with a quip riposte cutting across homosexuality, religion, and chess. Brilliant!