A Brain’s Lament

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Mary Bartlett likes IkeI try to have an open mind.

I watched the Republican and Democratic conventions. I listen to pundits and analysts on Fox News and MSNBC, and on networks that claim to be impartial. I tune in to both Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly. I read Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, and Gail Collins. I’m glued to the debates.

I steel myself against confirmation bias—where we selectively expose ourselves only to information that validates our own beliefs.

I try to learn as much as possible about the ideas of both political parties.

In short, my brain is ready to make the “correct” decisions in the November elections.

Not so fast.

I may be a victim of biased assimilation, a process where we may claim to be open to both sides of an argument or political position, but can’t help but selectively assimilate information. The theory, according to Harvard legal scholar Cass Sunstein, author of Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, is that we give more weight to information that supports our original beliefs and tend to dismiss information that undermines those beliefs—no matter how well argued or reasoned.

If I buy that, it means I won’t be watching and listening to the candidates these next few days with such an open mind after all.

I’m not buying that entirely. Even if my brain is wired to react in a “red” or a “blue” way, it still can spot pandering, incompetence, and, yes, idiocy, as well as good ideas from candidates from all parts of the political spectrum. If I don’t believe that, then what’s a brain for?

I’m taking all I’ve learned into a voting booth on November 6, trusting that the American political process and my brain still work well. Or well enough.

In the meantime, my editorial colleagues and I invite you to enjoy this issue. We packed it with articles about, and by, students, faculty, and alumnae engaged in public policy and the political process—all using their brains very well indeed.

Many of the students and alumnae featured attribute their passionate public involvement to what they learned at Scripps and how they learned it—especially in the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities. That’s where they first debated multiple sides of an issue.

Also inside, Michael Spezio, assistant professor of psychology, writes how he and Laura Loesch ’09, a doctoral candidate at Caltech in computation and neural systems, are producing groundbreaking research on how the brain makes decisions regarding political candidates.

Read before voting.