2012-11-18 – I just finished reading two books about the prefrontal cortext. One is How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. The other is The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely. I’ve read books by Ariely before. He runs experiments to test out the boundaries of human behavior and finds out that we don’t always act as you would think.
The first one deals with character (i.e., self-control) as the essential skill for children to succeed in school and later in life. The second deals with dishonesty as a failure of self-control (i.e., character) in suppressing cheating. In both cases self-control is found in an area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex and its role in self-control seems to be a popular item these days. And the call to listen to our prefrontal cortexes seems to contradict the advice I heard many years ago when I was in college: If it feels good, do it! And a few years later: Follow your bliss!
As if exercising self-control doesn’t feel good.
The thing that amazes me about these swings in fashion is that I don’t get how it is one or the other.
In Jewish tradition, there was the bad inclination (yetzer ha-ra) and the good inclination (yetzer ha-tov). The yetzer ha-tov was not thought to mature until age 13. The yetzer ha-ra, despite its name, was not thought to be something to be eradicated. It was just something to keep in balance.
The stories in these two books seem to represent the political right and the political left. The political right says that the 47 percent lack the character to take care of themselves and, therefore, are looking to mooch off the ones who do. The political left says that the rich lack character (though they don’t use the term) and are corrupt and cheating. The rich, they say, are the if-it-feels-good-do-it folks.
Could it be that both are right – in their limited world views?
And who would have thought that the solution to the political divide in this country could be found in the brain?
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