A little while ago, I was walking down an isolated beach in the Caribbean when I met up with a young boy playing on the remains of a wrecked sloop. He was native to the island, which meant that he had been born there and was of African descent. The original natives, the Lucayans, had all been wiped out within a generation of Columbus’ landing in the New World, and African slaves had been imported to work the salt pans and sugar cane fields.
As we talked, he mentioned that he had just won the spelling bee at his school. I congratulated him and then asked if he’d ever seen the movie “Akeelah and the Bee.” The film is about a young African-American girl who competes in a spelling bee. I had watched it with my young daughters and they had found it very inspirational. They both said it made them feel like they wanted to work really hard and excel at something.
The young boy had seen the movie as well, he told me, and he particularly liked how even though the white people had cheated, Akeelah had beaten them. I thought for a moment, and then remembered a scene where the parent of one of the contestants had indeed tried to coach her child from the audience. At the time, it hadn’t struck me as very significant.
There is no question that the “white” people have behaved very badly in the Caribbean, both in the past and in the present, and any honest person will admit to some racial tension on this island paradise, on both sides. Race has always been fertile ground for irrational prejudices and unfair stereotypes. One has only to think of Obama’s comment about how his white grandmother was afraid of young black men on the street, while she was raising a young black man herself.
But what struck me most about my conversation with the boy was how different our perceptions of the movie were. We saw a different movie, selectively remembered different parts, and probably took away different messages. One could speculate that the messages would also drive different behavior.
For me, the most incredible discovery of brain science is that what happened with the perception of the movie isn’t the exception, but the rule. All of know that we have biases and that they affect the way we read situations, when we stop and think about it. But when that MRI first tracked the flow of information through the brain and we saw how the brain first disassembles sense data and then reassembles it with input from the areas of the brain responsible for our beliefs, attitudes, and desires, we realized that all of us are creating our own views all of the time, and there is no objective standard to measure them by.
The MRI didn’t necessarily teach us anything we didn’t already know, but it gave us the kind of scientific data that we consider proof, and the ramifications of the finding should transform how we behave. When we can’t trust our view as the truth, or be sure that others see things the way we do, we have to change the way we operate.
The science makes me humble. It teaches me that I’m not in sole possession of the truth, so I’d better seek out other ideas that will challenge mine. I can no longer feel righteous indignation over the words or actions of others, because they simply stem from a different view. When I’m interacting with people whose support I need, it’s no longer a question of what I want, but of understanding what others want.
So when I’m on my game and attending to the new view science gives us, I try to behave differently. I try not to judge others, but to appreciate their point of view, so I declare less and ask more questions. I try not to get trapped in the way I see things, but instead empathize first. I don’t expect my employees, my spouse, or my children to follow my direction, no matter how entitled or right I may think myself to be.
I’m not alway on my game, of course, although the tricks of perception might delude me into believing I am. So it’s an ongoing struggle. Many would see this as simply being polite or moral. But I also see it as practical. We are social beings, highly dependent on others, and anticipating where others are coming from is the starting point for figuring out how we can gain their support.