Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Our Brains Lead Us Astray

A simple fact about the human brain is that it is easily swayed by emotion.

There is a lot of brainpower dedicated to assimilating and analyzing facts.

However, emotion often overwhelms those facts. In scientific terms, the limbic system (emotional mind) can easily end up controlling the neocortex (rational mind) portions of our brains and lead us astray.

We are also very susceptible to those things that are vivid, current and easy to recall.

This is particularly troublesome in our high-tech age when we are exposed to so many vivid stories on all forms of media 24/7 and we see and hear so many emotionally charged stories through the media.

School shootings. Package bombs. Deaths by driverless cars.

This causes us to pay more attention and place more importance on those things that are vivid and easily recalled rather on those things that actually might be more significant.

For example, do you know how many American service men and women were killed in combat in 2017?

We have been hearing a lot about the war on terrorism for over a decade in all forms of media. If there is a death, we hear about it.

However, did you realize that there were just 21 American combat deaths in 2017.

Compare that to the number of training deaths by armed forces members last year---over 100. There were 56 training deaths between June and October alone.

Since the war on terror began in 2001, 1,250 Marines have been killed in combat. However, 1,400 have died in training.

Credit: Military.com
Photo by Staff Sgt Kenneth W. Norman

The combat deaths get played up a lot more in our minds but the reality is that if you enter the service you have a greater chance at dying during training than in combat.

The news has recently been focused on the school shootings in Florida and the bombings in Austin, Texas. The news has been horrific involving the deaths of 17 students in Florida and 2 innocent people in Austin.

However, consider that in my home county in Ohio (Hamilton County) it was announced recently that 529 people died from drug overdoses last year. 373 involved opioids alone. We are talking about just one county in the United States.

The Hamilton County coroner stated that if not for the fact that first responders now carry Narcan with them when responding to a drug overdose call, that deaths could easily have been two to three times higher.

To put those 529 drug overdose deaths in perspective, you may recall that I had recently referenced the fact that only 374 homicides were the result of a rifle in 2016 (the most recent year data is available right now) for the entire country.

Think about that for a second. There were more deaths by drug overdoses in Cincinnati, Ohio than all of the homicides by rifles in the entire United States of America. However, there are many who want to make more drugs legal and more guns illegal.

We also had tens of thousands of young people marching in Washington, DC last weekend in a "March For Our Lives" event that was spearheaded by the survivors of the high school shootings in Parkland, Florida to protest gun violence and lobby for more gun control measures. It is great to see the passion and purpose of those students on the issue.

However, it is estimated that over 65,000 Americans died from drug use last year. That is three times the number who died from drug overdoses in 2002.

If you want to put that in further context, consider that there were more deaths from drug overdoses in the United States last year than the total number killed in the Vietnam War. That war also saw a lot of young men and women take to the streets to protest.

You can get a better idea of the dimensions of the drug problem by looking at these visuals from Time that compare the number of overdoses in 2002 and 2014. Keep in mind that the drug overdoses in Hamilton County are up almost 50% since 2014. They were up 31% in the last year alone.

Lethal Drug Overdoses by County-2002

Lethal Drug Overdoses by County-2014

A comparison of gun deaths and drug overdose deaths to contemplate for the most recent years available.

Drug overdose deaths---65,000

Total Gun deaths---38,000 (22,000 suicide, 16,000 homicide or accident)

Where is the similar emotion that would cause students to march in Washington, DC about drug overdose deaths?

Of course, a lot has also been made by the unfortunate pedestrian that was killed by the Uber driverless vehicle in Arizona last week. That story is both vivid and all the more frightening because it involves technology that seems inherently scary to those of us that can't imagine trusting a machine to drive a car.

Uber Self-Driving Car
Credit: SlashGear.com

It probably doesn't even matter now that the police are saying that the accident was probably unavoidable for even the best human driver. The pedestrian simply stepped out of the shadows at night into the path of the car outside of a designated crosswalk.

It is not easy to get that story out of our minds. Never mind, as I also wrote about recently, that there were nearly 6,000 pedestrian deaths last year. That means that there were likely another 15 other poor souls that were hit and killed by a car with a driver on the same day that this unfortunate woman was hit by the driverless Uber car.

As you see and hear stories like these, keep in mind how your brain works and how it can easily lead you astray.

Stop and THINK about the larger context.

Context is everything when assessing anything.

It especially true when it is so easy for our brains to lead us astray.

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