This is scary: you believe you are acting honorably & wisely,

but you are not.

For readers of this blog, this worry may signal a familiar theme:  the extent to which unconscious biases can be completely outside the awareness of well intentioned people  while  still leading them to act.  And now there’s a good book by a leading science journalist, Shankar Vedantam, called The  Hidden Brain: How  our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars and save lives, which takes a good look at what we know about unconscious biases and the ills they can cause.

There’s a very common theoretical position behind the kind of mainline research he is looking at:  at almost every moment of your waking life you are in charge of a large jointed physical object – one with jiggly bits – that you have to negotiate safely through a very complex physical environment and an exceptional and fairly unique social environment.  Your world is full of information and you need to pick up tons of it, from the fact that the pavement beneath the two little platform this object is positioned on to the emotional reactions of the people you are talking to.  And if you get some of it wrong, you might be in big trouble, from a damaging fall or a lost love interest.

How do you cope?  You could not cope with all this consciously, so an enormous amount is taken care of by your extraordinary brain.  You get the results, but you do not get the input and you are most often not aware of the selection process or what in the environment is tilting that process. 

And Hume was really right:  your mind picks up the patterns in the world and anticipates their continuing. 

Just from this, you can see there’s a huge downside.  If someone doesn’t act in accord with those patterns, your reaction can be very negative in ways you find it hard to justify rationally.  Your brain is conservative, one could say, though if you are reading this, you probably are not.  Others can figure out how to manipulate the brain in ways you will almost certainly not notice.  In fact, it becomes not so surprising that you feel sure you are doing the honorable and wise thing, while you are not.

Malcolm Gladwell talked a bit about the unconscious mind in Blink, but the present book is much more focus on the area and at least some of the ways in which the brain is guiding decisions and actions you would not approve of if you really got what’s going  on. 

It may not be a book for academics in the relevant field unless you enjoy quick gossipy reads that includes stuff about an academic couple in trouble (all my idea of fun, I have to say).  But for all of us who are not engaged in the experimental background, it’s got a lot to think about. 

In addition, there’s a very valuable discussion of it on Salon, brought to our attention by Mr. Jender.  It gives you a bit of a sense of the book and, even more importantly, it raises the MORAL ISSUES!  Given that most of us are more inclined toward racist and sexist actions than we think, how should  we judge our moral responsibility for such actions?  And how about those of others?  It’s pretty awful to think that society’s attitudes result in poor health care for minorities (or overweight people), but the attitudes are ours, for goodness’ sake, even if we do not want to own them.

(Thanks to Jender, Mr Jender, and AB who also sent us this link.)

So have a think and let us know what you think about moral responsibility and things like that…

Are you writing a doctoral thesis on Irigaray?

If  so,  this looks like a wonderful opportunity for you:

Invitation to the Seminar of Luce Irigaray 14 – 19 June 2010

 Since 2003, Luce Irigaray has held an annual seminar for researchers doing their PhD on her work. The seminar offers the opportunity to receive personal teaching from Luce Irigaray and to exchange ideas, methods and experiences with other participants. The seminar was hosted by the University of Nottingham during the first three years (see Luce Irigaray: Teaching edited by Luce Irigaray with Mary Green, and published by Continuum, London & New York, 2008), by the University of Liverpool the fourth year, by Queen Mary, University of London the fifth year and by the Goodenough College of London the sixth year. In 2010, it will be hosted by Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, in Ireland.

The framework of the seminar is this: a group of fifteen researchers doing their PhD on the work of Luce Irigaray stay one week on the university campus. The schedule includes: a presentation by each researcher of the aspect of their PhD which most focuses on the work of Irigaray, the discussion of this presentation by the group, comments from Luce Irigaray herself and her answers to questions raised by each participant. Also included are sessions devoted to the explanation of key-words or key-thoughts chosen by the participants. Personal meetings with Luce Irigaray are organised on the last day. The participants pay for their travel, but receive hospitality from the university. The seminar is conducted in English.

The participants in the seminar come from different regions of the world; they belong to different cultures, traditions and fields of research – Philosophy, Gender Studies, Religious Studies, Literature, Arts, Critical and Cultural Studies, etc. The themes of their research include, for example: the treatment of personal or cultural traumatic experience; the resources that various arts can offer for dwelling in oneself and with the other(s); the maternal order and feminine genealogy; the interpretation and embodiment of the divine today; the contribution of sexuate difference to personal and social development; new perspectives in philosophy etc. In each of these fields, diverse domains, approaches and methods are represented. To date, participants have come from Australia, Vietnam, Korea, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, Latvia, Spain, Italy, Ireland and from different regions and universities of the U.S.A. and of the U.K. Beyond the multicultural teaching which results from such a gathering, the participants learn to live together and to share in difference during the time devoted to the work, and also during meals, walks, personal meetings etc. The atmosphere of the seminar is intense but friendly and joyful, and its outcome highly successful for both the research and the life of each participant.

If you are interested and would like to participate in such a seminar please send, as soon as possible, a CV, a PhD abstract (1 page) and a presentation of the issues and arguments of your PhD that most focus on the work of Luce Irigaray (5-6 pages) to Luce Irigaray (by mail: 15, rue Lakanal, 75015 Paris, France). After receiving this material, Luce Irigaray will tell you if you can participate in the seminar of 2010. You will be contacted for further practical information by Marita Ryan at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick after the selection of the candidates.