Here’s an excerpt from Steve Volk’s new book. I’ll be interviewing him tomorrow night:
If the universe doesn’t seem quite weird enough for you yet, consider the matter of time, a particularly sticky wicket: To explore the subject, physicists Yakir Aharonov and Jeff Tollaksen devised an incredible experiment, in which the act of measuring a particle predictably changes the value of the same particle in — get this — an earlier measurement. Numerous labs around the world have been successfully conducting and replicating the experiment, which seems to indicate something awfully wild about reality: an action taken in the future can affect what happens in the present, at least at a subatomic level.
Aharonov and Tollaksen aren’t sure exactly what to make of their own experiment. But this is precisely the spot at which we can use a real, scientiﬁc mystery to understand something about ourselves and how we react to the paranormal. Most likely, you rebelled, internally, during this last paragraph. The controversial results of this experiment — the mysterious nature of their findings — may have bothered you so much that you simply dismissed it as impossible. But without belaboring the nature of time, there is a part of your brain that probably sent you a tremulous message to watch out when I wrote something that seems so nonsensical. Maybe you furrowed your eyebrows, your pulse quickened, you momentarily held your breath or even felt angry or dismissive, as if what I had written must be false and I must be stupid or even craven to write it. But here’s the thing: that wasn’t you, or at least not the rational, reasonable you. That was your brain talking — most dramatically, your amygdala, a necessary but frustrating part of the brain. The amygdala is the spot in the brain I accuse of making us seem to lack humility — the part of our brain that can cause us to haughtily dismiss information we ﬁnd threatening or don’t understand.
When our place on the food chain was not so secure, and we had to deal with predator cats on a regular basis, the amygdala — a pair of almond-shaped structures near the base of our temporal lobes — did great work. Our brain processed visual images of a shadow moving in the grass, and our amygdala shouted, “Danger!” In response, we froze. Our more logical information-processing centers kicked in, quickly trying to determine: Is this shadow a crouching tiger or a hidden rabbit? If the shadow was big enough, our logical frontal lobes responded, Close enough to a tiger for me, our amygdala sent a stronger signal of abject fear in return, and we ran.
Millions of years later, Homo sapiens is here — and we brought our amygdalas with us. Some of us, like kids in the inner city, or soldiers in the battleﬁeld, still need them a lot. These are people who worry on a daily basis about potent threats to their health — about a lump in a stranger’s pocket that might mean he is carrying a handgun; about a mound of dirt on the side of the road which might cover a bomb. But for most of us, the amygdala (along with other parts of the brain responsible for mediating emotion and processing conﬂicting information) is responding to far less grave mysteries but is still sending us messages of anxiety and fear whenever necessary and much of the time besides, including when the boss says something harsh to us at work, a co-worker cuts us a nasty look, or when we hear an idea that conﬂicts with our worldview. This has profound implications for all of us, and our conversations about the paranormal. Oftentimes our ﬁrst reaction, even if it is about an intellectual subject, is an emotional one: We react to the ideas we hear with this primitive part of our brain. And when we feel emotionally committed to a position, that is precisely the time we’re in the greatest danger of reacting — not from our frontal lobes, like enlightened human beings, but from our amygdalas, like angry or frightened monkeys.
We see this play out in our culture wars, in politics and in our debates over science and religion: Believers sometimes consider those of no or different faith downright unholy. Nonbelievers, of late, take great delight in openly deriding believers as irrational and childlike. And too often the rest of us wind up listening to people letting their amygdalas inspire far too much of the talking.