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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 153

Kevin Dutton — Black-and-White Thinking: The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex World

Several million years ago, natural selection equipped us with binary, black-and-white brains. Though the world was arguably simpler back then, it was in many ways much more dangerous. Not coincidentally, the binary brain was highly adept at detecting risk: the ability to analyze threats and respond to changes in the sensory environment — a drop in temperature, the crack of a branch — was essential to our survival as a species. Since then, the world has evolved — but we, for the most part, haven’t. Confronted with a panoply of shades of gray, our brains have a tendency to “force quit:” to sort the things we see, hear, and experience into manageable but simplistic categories. We stereotype, pigeon-hole, and, above all, draw lines where in reality there are none. In our modern, interconnected world, it might seem like we are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges we face — that living with a binary brain is like trying to navigate a teeming city center with a map that shows only highways.

Shermer and Dutton discuss:

  • black-and-white thinking in: physics, biology, psychology, politics, economics, society,
  • What are categories and why do we need them?
  • When does a hill become a mountain and how many grains of sand makes a heap?
  • from quantitative scaling to qualitative categories,
  • analogue vs. digital, vinyl records vs. DVDs,
  • What is a species, exactly?
  • How can there be dozens of genders if there are just males and females?
  • Abortion: where do you draw the line?
  • from categories to stereotypes to bigotries,
  • tribalism, xenophobia, & racism: the dark side of black-and-white thinking,
  • the difference between a cult, a sect, and a religion,
  • What constitutes mental disorders? Are we all a little crazy?
  • Consciousness: when do the lights come on?
  • When is a Republican a conservative and not a liberal?

Dr. Kevin Dutton is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a research psychologist at the University of Oxford. He regularly publishes in leading international scientific journals and speaks at conferences around the world. He is the author of Flipnosis and The Wisdom of Psychopaths, for which he was awarded a Best American Science and Nature Writing prize. His work has been translated into over twenty languages, and his writing and research have been featured in Scientific American, New Scientist, The Guardian, The Times, Psychology Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among other publications.

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This episode was released on January 19, 2021.

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