The Brain Is A Strange Planet

The brain is a strange planet; the planet is a strange brain. The most important science story of the past year isn’t one story, but an accumulation of headlines. With advanced recording and communication technologies, more people than ever before are sharing details of individual experiences and events, making culture more permeable and fluid. This verifiable record of diversity has brought people together while also amplifying their differences.

Marginalized groups are enjoying widespread recognition of their rights. Measures like federal legalization of gay marriage and partial, state-level legalization of marijuana show lifestyles once considered abnormal have gained acceptance. At the same time, political divisions remain alarmingly stark. In the past year, over one million fled their home countries for Europe, seeking a better life. And not all signs show we are becoming more tolerant. One of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination suggested America address the threat of global terror by denying all Muslims entry into the United States. He performs well in the polls.

At the summit on climate change in Paris in December, delegations from India and China objected to measures that would limit their economic development by curtailing their ability to pollute. Without recognizing that today’s climate is a product of damaging methods of expansion, India and China argue emerging markets should be able to destroy the environment as did Western economies as they matured. This perspective is driven by fear of being usurped, outpaced and overcome, and its myopia demonstrates fear short-circuits the logical decision-making of entire countries just as it does that of individuals. 

“One person’s freedom ends where another’s begins,” we seem to be saying. If this is what drives the formation of cultural norms today, dialogue about issues like water rights, energy use and climate change will be determined by how these issues actually affect individuals.

According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Our culture has potential to realize a seismic shift in consciousness and rebalance environmental and social scales. We’ve invented the story of this world—the cities we live in, the language and symbols we use to articulate thoughts, the love we nurture to propel us forward. A shift in perspective may be all it takes to convince us the greatest threat to humanity comes not from another people in another land, but from all people, everywhere.