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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 6 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 6 of 14)

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

Beyond Flipping Over The Coconut Shell

Once we are dissatisfied with our enclosed world, the second step of actually flipping over our shell is by contrast relatively easy. The challenge here is to ensure that no one gets hurt or much damage done in the process. That being said, the fear of either should not preclude us from undertaking the mission. I am not being radical rather to emphasize that the rewards of not living under a coconut shell are so great that it is worth paying any price to flip it over.

Merely wildly thrashing around out of frustration could sometime inadvertently topple our shell. Of course if we could do it elegantly and avoid injuries or damage, that would be a plus. Our success might even inspire others, as the Tunisians and Egyptians have done.

Once we have toppled our shell, or it be flipped over inadvertently by cataclysmic external events, the challenge would then be to make the necessary adjustments to this new world so we could be productive participants. Equipping ourselves with the necessary skills is one such important preparation. Neglect this and we risk making the new world not only unwelcoming but also frightening, tempting us to retreat.

Many saw those riveting pictures of the Chilean miners being rescued. When they emerged they all wore dark sunglasses. Their eyes, long used to the dim light underground, would be blinded by the bright daylight. We too must equip ourselves with our metaphorical sunglasses lest we be blinded once we emerge from under our shell. Just like those miners, we must equip ourselves before we emerge.

The other component to the preparation is acknowledging that this new open world is no utopia. We have to separate the opportunities from the dangers. There are real dangers in this new world. For example, the Internet indeed makes it more difficult for authoritarian governments to hide their hideous activities. Consider the Tiananmen Square massacre, broadcasted live worldwide. Perversely however, the Internet can also be one of the most effective tools for governments (and not just authoritarian ones) to keep track of their citizens. The biggest challenge facing privacy advocates in America is precisely this.

Once we are out and have adjusted well in our new open world, there are still restraints that prevent us from hearing the braying of the donkey. In part this is biological, with our brain programmed to recognize pre-set patterns – like believing the mullah – and those patterns hinder us from recognizing new ones.

Milgram’s experiments at Yale in the 1960s demonstrated that even bright students were only too willing to follow “orders” from their superiors to the extent of inflicting “lethal” electric shocks on their fellow students. They willingly listened to the commands of their “mullahs” despite the death braying of their “donkey” victims.

A decade later at Stanford, Philip Zimbardo conducted his famous prison experiment where he had students take on the role of guards and prisoners. It did not take long for those “guards” to take their role with gusto, inflicting gratuitous punishments on their “prisoners.” The experiment had to be terminated prematurely as those “guards” bordered on being sadistic.

Milgram’s experiments illuminated the horrible human dynamics of the holocaust three decades earlier; Zimbardo’s enlightened us on the cruel obscenities of Abu Ghairab three decades later.

It is worth reminding that some of Milgram’s subjects resisted peer pressures, as did the brave soldiers who exposed Abu Ghairab. Bless them! They had the courage to act on their convictions. They believed the braying of the donkey over the soothing words of their powerful mullahs!

More problematic are the “tricks” our brains play on us that we are not even aware of. Consider the Muller-Lyer optical illusion of the two lines of equal length seen as otherwise because of the shape of the arrows at their ends. Or the picture of the vase, or is that two faces facing each other? Then there is the image that could be construed as either that of a pretty young lady or a grouchy old woman. Imagine yourself engaged in those mail-order brides and given that picture!

These optical illusions are the result of our brain’s tendency to form patterns, and those patterns in turn are based on our experiences. Cross cultural studies on these Muller-Lyer illusions indicate that the Kalahari nomads would see those lines as being equal in length.

Similarly, studies on children who are blind at birth and later given sight-restoring surgery indicate that, at least initially, they do not see the world as we do. They do not see a Holstein cow munching leisurely in the meadow underneath the blue sky. Those are the images our brain has created for us through our experiences. Instead what those previously blind children see are globs of white and black on a sea of green under a blue cover.

The pixels of images transmitted by the eye of that previously blind child are no different from what my eyes transmit to my brain. The reality is the same, yet our perceptions are vastly different; I see a meaningful pattern while that child sees only patches of colors. That previously blind child will not see what I see until he too learns to interpret those images, just like I went through during my infancy.

Another factor to our brain’s interpretations of these images is its biological propensity to respond to boundaries or the periphery, as well as motion. Perhaps this is of survival value in our evolution; those without this capacity had been effectively weeded out by predators lurking in the periphery. Thus our how an image is framed would alter our brain’s perception of it; hence those Gestalt figures.

This “framing” takes on even greater import with complex images of real life. A senator’s impassioned speech seen on C-SPAN would lose its impact if there were to be a simultaneous panoramic view of the empty senate chamber. Similarly, the sting of those ugly anti-American demonstrations by maniacal Iranians would fizzle out if we were also shown the empty streets of Tehran.

Those intent on manipulating reality will use these well-rehearsed framing techniques to influence our perception. Television cameras in the hands of the sinister minded can be devastatingly effective in this trick. Skilled photographers maximize the impact of their subjects by appropriately “framing” them. While a picture is worth a thousand words, how it is framed determines what those words will be.

Filmmakers introduce another sensory element – sound – to help frame the scene. Sound effects, background colors, peripheral boundaries, and relative positions of objects; all these influence our perception. President Reagan’s handlers were particularly skillful in these image enhancements and manipulations.

Two additional elements come into play in our perception of complex social images. One is Timur Kuran’s “preference falsification,” and the other, “confirmation bias,” alluded to earlier. To recap, confirmation bias is our tendency to favor information that supports our preconceptions regardless of its veracity.

Preference falsification is our disposition to say or act in public what we do not believe privately. Preference falsification is the greatest obstacle to formulating sound public policy as we would put forth ideas and strategies that we do not believe privately. Publicly we expound on the importance of Malay language but privately we send our children to international schools or even abroad where the language of instruction is other than Malay. There are other egregious expressions of preference falsification in our public life. You do not have to look far.

If those social and psychological factors were not enough, our brain is also captive to our chemistry. We are familiar with “steroid rage,” the outbreak of unprovoked violence by those on long term steroids. If you are still skeptical on the role of chemistry, watch a monkey in heat. We are not too far away biologically, as with the saying, “When the durian comes down, the sarong goes up.” Here it is not hormones that play havoc on us rather those exotic amines in the king of fruit. One chemical widely consumed that has a predictable impact on our mind is of course alcohol.

Our brain is affected by these chemicals, in particular the neurotransmitters; in fact that is how nerve cells communicate with each other. Slight variations in their concentrations exert profound impact on our emotions, and thus our perceptions of reality. Incidentally, the understanding of these neurotransmitters paved the way for the pharmacological treatment of mental maladies like depression.

Whether a free mind can be understood at, related to, or ultimately controlled at the neurochemical level remains to be seen. These experiments in psychology and neuroscience do however illuminate one salient point: the immensely complex working of the human brain and thinking process. That should caution us from being simplistic.

Our leaders never tire of exhorting us to think critically and to have a free mind. Flip over the coconut shell, they urge us with nauseating frequency. Yet when some did exactly that and did not like what they saw and voted for the opposition, the refrain quickly changed to, “You are being ungrateful and disloyal!”

If you truly have an open mind, then you will just love us; that seems to be the arrogant delusion of these leaders. It reminds me of the thinking of Henry Ford; he would give his customers the freedom to choose the color of their cars, as long as it was black!

Our leaders may grow hoarse in urging us to have a free mind, but that would be the only thing they would achieve, a hoarse voice. There is no magic wand; unfortunately this reality has not yet dawn on our leaders.

Have a free mind, they commanded, and it shall be done. Unfortunately the world of the mind is much more complex than their simple minds could comprehend.

Related to the issue of a free mind is the matter of mindset, which as defined earlier, is one’s attitude to or philosophy of life. The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes the two basic types: the fixed versus the growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset view their talent and ability as fixed, tied to their innate ability, something they are born with or gifted by nature. With their Readers’ Digest understanding of genetics, they view themselves as being governed by their genes. They are in effect trapped by their biologic pre-determinism, which can be just as crippling as the more familiar religious pre-determinism.

Those with a growth mindset on the other hand believe that their fate depends on their ability to adapt and learn from new challenges and environments. They are not trapped or limited by whatever nature had endowed upon them.

Leaders with a fixed mindset are the likes of Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, firm believers in their innate abilities. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan best exemplified leaders with a growth mindset. Nixon was a staunch conservative and a firm supporter of Taiwan, but that did not stop him from opening up to China. Reagan, like Nixon, was also staunchly conservative but had no difficulty working with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The signal difference between those with fixed mindset versus those with growth mindset is their attitude towards failure. Those with fixed mindset consider any failure as a reflection of their being, an affirmation of their inadequacies or lack of natural ability. That failure not only reflects their individual shortcomings but also that of their race. Their typical response to failure would be to retreat and never to emerge or challenge the situation again.

Those with a growth mindset consider failure as part and parcel of the learning and adapting process. They bounce right back. In Silicon Valley, a failed entrepreneur wears his failure as a warrior would his battle scars, and then moves on. Nixon and Reagan were both defeated on their first try at the presidency, but both went on to win with substantial majorities on subsequent attempts.

Hamka encapsulates best the attitude of those with a fixed mindset with his saying, Takut gagal adalah gagal sejati. The fear of failure is the real failure.

Thus, to recap, the twin qualities needed to cope and indeed thrive in the open diverse world outside the coconut shell are a free mind and a growth mindset.

Next: Avoiding Being Entrapped Mentally


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