drupal statistics module

Machines Like Us

Cerebral and visceral reactions

Wednesday, 01 August 2012
by Mano Singham

When presented with news and other information, we have both visceral and cerebral responses. The visceral comes from the emotional reaction and occurs immediately and almost spontaneously while the cerebral response arises from our intellectual reaction involving conscious thought and takes a while to kick in.

This runs parallel to what Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes as System 1 and System 2 thinking in his influential 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow that I discussed recently. He says that two different parts of our brains govern the two systems that he describes this way (p. 20): “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” while “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

This distinction is particularly relevant in the case of hot-button issues that I label as GRAGGS (guns, race, abortion, gays, god, and sex). In those cases, the relative weightage that the cerebral and visceral play in our response will often depend on our personal history. The more one can see oneself in that situation, the stronger one’s visceral reaction is likely to be.

For example, recently I posted an item about a horrific act of cruelty done to a kitten. I think that almost everyone would have thought that such an act was wrong and inexcusable and that the perpetrator should be punished. But I suspect that those readers who have pets of their own would have had an even a stronger visceral component to their reaction. Why? Because they can immediately envisage how they would feel if that had happened to their own pets.

I myself am extremely fond of my dog and if anyone had done anything like that to him, I would have been in a state of blinding rage. This caused me to have such a visceral reaction to that story that I could almost taste the bile and could not bring myself to view the photos or the videos. One commenter said that she cried when she saw the photos and asked me to put a warning to others, which I did. And yet, I can understand those who feel that while the action was terribly wrong, yet did not react anywhere near as strongly as the two of us did. Pet owners who have lost a pet can often tell from the reactions of others to this news whether they too have pets or not. Everyone is sympathetic but with other pet owners, you can sense that they feel a sense of grief too, almost as if they had lost their own pet or are recalling what they felt at a time when they too suffered a similar loss.

Sometime ago, I posted an appreciation of that excellent TV comedy series Barney Miller that ran from 1975 to 1982. I showed a short clip that illustrates the point I am making in this post. I suggest that you watch it first before reading on.