December 6, 2022

The DIY Lobotomy

Guest Opinion
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | April 17, 2021

“Did you read the review in The New Yorker of the new Philip Roth biography?” I asked my well-read conservative cousin. (Yes, Black conservatives do exist!)

“No,” he responded. “I don’t read The New Yorker; too liberal.”

“But Roth is the world’s greatest writer to never have won the Nobel Prize for literature,” I responded. "The New Yorker, first published in 1925, publishes rigorously fact-checked articles. It also sets the highest intellectual literacy standards.” 

“Sure. For liberal democrats.”

A revelatory moment, this. With echoes of the illuminating words of Alan Lightman, MIT physicist: “In a lifetime, most people travel no farther than 500 from home.”

Lightman's reference to geographical distance, I believe, applies equally to the geography of the mind. A brain constrained by repetitive notions, repetitive activities, and limited social contacts is a brain that never leaves home. These limitations have serious consequences for optimum brain functioning. Such limited contacts and associations mean never traveling very far mentally from one’s origins. Vast territories of cognitive territory remain unexplored, and callow fetish for the comfort of the familiar sets in.

This is spiritual lobotomy: the blanket refusal to embrace the limitless possibilities of human richness. It occurs when we allow others to think for us, decide whom we associate with, what we believe.

Bulgarian-born American writer Maria Popova suggests, “Who we are and who we become is in large part the combinatorial product of the people and ideas we surround ourselves with — what William Gibson so memorably termed our personal micro-culture. The more different those people are from us, the more they expand the echo chamber of our own mind, the more layered and beautiful the symphony of the spirit becomes.”

A mind limited to only familiar things negatively impacts the frontal lobes! Mental activity circumscribed by a “tribe’s” way of thinking, destroys independent thought and critical thinking. Radicalism becomes the new righteousness.

Asking “What would my tribe (or political party, religion, philosophy, family of origin, culture, etc.) say, think, or do,” impairs the part of one’s brain that's responsible for reasoning, critical thinking, and decision-making is compromised. Beyond the old bromide “use it or lose it,” there’s scientific support for this argument.

According to cognitive psychologists, the frontal lobe, which is located behind the forehead, is responsible for planning, organization, logical thinking, reasoning, and managing emotions — collectively referred to as “executive functions.”  The Barclay Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale is a psychometric scale that screens for problems in this area. It focuses primarily on gross disorders that affect an individual’s ability to get things done, such as work, study, and getting along with others. If not maintained, executive functioning erodes and becomes weak and unreliable.

A recent study published in the medical journal Pain discusses “neglect-like symptoms” that occur following a stroke. The patient loses the ability to move a part of the body because of damage to a region of the brain that controls that body part. This weakness cannot be explained by muscular deficits. Rather, the deficit occurs because a specific region in the brain has been damaged. The patient has to relearn the ability to move, walk or, sometimes even, talk. If the deficits set is left untreated, it becomes permanent. The part of the brain that governs those physical activities atrophies.

If we blindly follow our tribe and embrace the idea that the tribe’s leaders and members are infallible, our frontal lobes malfunction and our executive functioning gets weaker. The Jan. 6 insurrection was probably the direct consequence of its participants’ malfunctioning frontal lobes.

This spiritual lobotomy is different from a medical lobotomy, a form of psychosurgery. That procedure used an icepick to sever connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex as a way of treating presumed mental disorders. This procedure was done at the expense of a person’s personality and intellect and often reduced the complexity of psychic life. The patient typically lost spontaneity, responsiveness, self-awareness, and self-control, becoming emotionally blunted and intellectually restricted.

Something similar happens when one comes under the sway of a radical group philosophy that teaches that everyone outside the tribe is an enemy — or worse — evil and a traitor. That’s because the human brain is wired to conform and eschews conflict and debate. Our brain would rather wrap itself in the comfort of like-mindedness. That’s not a bad thing if you surround yourself with open-minded people — people who believe in equality, fair play, and respect for the humanity of others.

This desire for agreement and consensus makes it difficult to reject clearly irrational actions and ideas. Thus, if the tribe becomes agitated, angry, and violent, we join happily in the fray.

Unlike physical lobotomies, spiritual lobotomies are reversible. How? An old joke asks, “How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer: “Only one — but it takes a long time, and the bulb has to want to change.”

Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney. 


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