Back around the turn of the century — when I was old enough to know better, anyway — I answered a knock on the door to find an unfamiliar twentysomething looking up at me with a disarming seal-pup expression on his face. He’d locked himself out of his car, apparently. He needed $20 to pay some tow-truck guy to jimmy the door. Once he regained access, though, he’d reclaim his wallet and return my twenty: 45 minutes, an hour tops.
I expressed polite but worldly skepticism. He offered me his windbreaker as collateral, something he truly treasured because, as he explained, it was a gift from his girlfriend. When I continued to hesitate, he waved a dismissive hand and turned away; if I wasn’t going to trust him, he said — obviously hurt and offended — he wasn’t going to waste my time.
I called him back. I gave him the twenty.
He traded me his windbreaker — just a plastic shell, really, not much of a gift from a loving partner but then again, times were tough. It wasn’t until an hour, tops had elapsed that I began to suspect what you’ve all known from the first paragraph. Another hour and that hypothesis had solidified into theory, theorem, empirical fact: that I am big fat gullible idiot.
Except now, thanks to the efforts of one Anthony I. Jack and his colleagues, all of me doesn’t have to take the rap for that. It turns out that only part of me is a big fat gullible idiot, and its name is Default Mode.
Apparently the brain contains these two Networks, Default Mode (DMN) and Task Positive (TPN). They don’t like each other much; whenever one is active, the other shuts down (Jack et al invoke the image of a teeter-totter, only one end of which can be up at a given time). The linkage between the two is indirect, though, so it’s not as though the activation of one network directly suppresses the other. They might instead talk through a neural intermediary, like fighting parents telling their child halfway down the dinner table to “ask your mother to pass the peas”. The point is, either the DMN is active, or the TPN is. They do not spark together; as a rule, they don’t even talk.
This can prove problematic when DPN is running the show, because another name for the DMN might as well be the BFGIN (Big Fat Gullible Idiot Network).
Jack et al presented their subjects with a series of written scenarios focusing either on mechanical issues (some guy riding a snowmobile fires a flare gun into the air) or social ones (Sue sneaks some candy without her mother’s knowledge, but then feels so wracked with guilt that she hurls herself off the CN Tower in a desperate bid for redemption1). They then asked questions about said scenarios (Where will the flare land in relation to the snowmobile? Did Sue’s mother know about the stolen candy all along?) And of course, all this went down while the subjects were strapped into an fMRI machine that drew sexy Technicolor Rorschach blots of brains in motion.
Jack et al discovered that the DPM woke up to deal with social issues, while the TPN took over on the mechanical ones. The TPN is Mr. Cognitive; the DMN is more empathic (and interestingly, seems to be the network that’s “on” by default). We can be analytical or we can be empathic, apparently; we cannot be both at once.
Jack et al gently suggests that the DMN, by virtue of its greater empathy, is more gullible: “tasks involving deception reliably recruit regions in the TPN associated with executive functions,” they write, and “Our hypothesis is that the inhibition between domains is driven by the need to differentiate members of our moral circle from objects suitable for manipulation.” We’re wired to give the benefit of the doubt to fellow beings; all else is mere inanimate resource.
Other commentary has taken this sentiment and run with it. “New research shows a simple reason why even the most intelligent, complex brains can be taken by a swindler’s story,” proclaims EurekAlert in Empathy Represses Analytic Thought, And Vice Versa. They go on to explore the flip side of that coin: that while we can be gullible fools while in Empathy Mode, we can also be heartless tone-deaf assholes when our analytic network is booted up (anybody remember how Tony Hayward wanted his life back?)
I’m no expert, but the study seems reasonably tight to me in terms of controls and assumptions. And the findings fit comfortably into my own preconceptions; Windbreaker of Shame notwithstanding, I’ve had a rudimentary gut-level awareness of this whole empathy-compromises-cognition thing for most of my life. (A therapist — the only therapist I’ve ever sought out on my own initiative2 — once asked what I hoped to get out of our sessions. I told him I wanted to become more sociopathic, that my sense of empathy had been doing more harm than good ever since I’d got shit-kicked at the age of eight for trying to rescue a garter snake from being ripped apart by a bunch of fifth-graders.) (Clinton Ford Elementary was a tough place to grow up, lemme tell you.)
Still, there’s something a bit off about this. Empathy, social awareness, the theory-of-someone-else’s-mind — these are not all fuzzy feelings of trust and joy. Tribes contain exploiters as well as allies. Why would a neural domain evolve to fill our guts with uncritical empathy at the sight of a wounded bird, but not with unease and suspicion at the sight of a used-car salesman? Both things exist in the outer social network; shouldn’t both responses be equally available to the inner one? Why should suspicion equal cognition?
Jack et al wind down their paper with a conceptual model that may go a ways to resolving this, albeit in an implicit and sideways kinda way: they talk about the cognitive antagonism between dealing with animate and inanimate objects, and invoke a system whereby activation of TPN and DMN is controlled by a third system which plays off the “tension” between the two. I like this not because they provide any real evidence, or even because it clarifies uncertainty (their model actually strikes me as kind of hand-wavey). I like it because it describes cognition in terms of conflict, and I’ve seen that before: in Ezequiel Morsella’s PRISM model, which argues that consciousness arises from the need to reconcile conflicting motor commands to the skeletal muscles.
Neither model really answers the hard question of why consciousness is conscious — Jack et al don’t even try, it’s just a post-hoc overlay I threw onto the paper myself — but this is two independent studies converging on a fundamental role for conflict in cognition. I like it when that happens.
As for me, I may not be a sociopath just yet but I am improving. Just last year another woeful-looking stranger waylaid me on the street, confessed that someone had siphoned the gas from his car, asked if I could spare a few bucks to get him back on the road. I asked where his car was parked; up by the armory, he told me. Six or seven blocks. Okay, said I, and fell into step alongside: Let’s go. Show me your car, and if the gauge reads empty, I’ll spot you the bucks.
He decided he didn’t want to walk all that way just to prove that he was honest. I told him to fuck off. I did not, however, beat in his fucking skull with a crowbar.
Evidently my TPN still needs work.
1 Okay, so I may be taking some liberties with that example.
2 The only one I’ve met who wasn’t a complete idiot. I had high hopes. If he hadn’t died less than a year in, I might be a new man by now.