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Falling Off the Horse: the Emotional Brain, the Rational Brain, and the Struggle for Balance

August 4, 2012

 

What do Jonah Lehrer and the USA men’s Olympic gymnastic team have in common? They both blew up this week. In both cases, the bombs were self detonated, but the collateral damage for Lehrer is likely to be far worse.

 

On Wednesday, despite its lack of a head, an attitude, or any moving parts, our gymnasts found the pommel horse nearly impossible to ride. It doesn’t buck you off as much as defy you to scootch around atop it at breakneck speed as it patiently waits for your basal ganglia––home of your pommel horse routine––to hand over the reigns to your prefrontal cortex––home of your second-guessing analytical self. That handoff can’t happen smoothly because of that half-second delay between your rational and emotional brain. A half-second is an eternity to neurotransmitters, more than enough time to screw up.

 

For the gymnasts, once the prefrontal cortex grabs ahold, you can kiss the medal round goodbye. When you stop to think about what you’re doing, your routine splinters into a thousand pieces.

 

That’s a real shame, because the US men’s gymnastic team hasn’t pulled off a team gold since the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, when the old Soviet Union team was considerate enough to boycott the Olympics. Winning that year was a little bit like defeating Michael Jordan’s Bulls during the glory years, if on that particular night Jordan was home nursing a gambling debt, and your little sister suited up in his place. You might have won, but in the same way iceberg lettuce qualifies as a vegetable.

 

Several days earlier, 31-year-old Jonah Lehrer, brain science expert, lecturer, blogger, bestselling author and NPR darling, admitted to fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in his latest book. The publisher pulled Imagine from bookstores and Amazon has followed suit. Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker on Monday.

 

Jonah Lehrer’s career-ending roadside bomb looks surprising similar to the gymnasts’ except for one key feature. It was his emotional brain that tripped him up the night he cribbed the phony quote. Instead of letting his prefrontal cortex intercede for a hearty round of rational thinking (the very thing that proved deadly to the gymnasts), he allowed his emotional brain to run amuck like a freshman at his first frat party, fact-checkers be dammed.

 

Lehrer and the gymnasts were both done in by the unholy alliance between rational and emotional brain. Early humans evolved to deal with vagaries in the environment. In an effort to conserve vital energy, the brain neglects a perfect equilibrium in favor of a “hell, that’s good enough” approach.

 

This week, we saw that lack of balance reflected not just on the pummel horse, but in the downfall of a science hero. Sadly, during these dog days of summer, the reflection in the mirror looks to be more monkey than man.

 

 

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