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Emotion or reason: amygdala or frontal cortex?

Nobody reading the news can fail to notice the stresses being imposed upon rational thinking. On the day that the American Republican Convention concludes, a torrent of articles spews forth from the assembled journalists, of which this excellent piece in Salon is one of the better ones. All are variations pretty much on a single theme: if there is a collective modern mind, are we losing it?

The Salon piece references a second article, described as “truly terrifying” beyond what is also an electric and highly quotable stream of articulate acuity by British journalist Laurie Penny in The Guardian. In reporting another journalist breaking down in tears and exclaiming: “ . . . there’s so much hate . . . What is happening to this country,” Penny’s diagnosis, and one of her better lines among the many good ones, is that what we have is the natural result when “weaponised insincerity is applied to structured ignorance”.

Penny’s context is the brittle cynicism of the heartless Twittersphere, and the manipulation of the fearful, angry and dispossessed by people who must know better but don’t care. Her immediate context is the highly charged atmosphere of an American convention bear pit, never the most salubrious reflection of humanity in its cognitive finery. But she could as well have referenced the bluff demagogueries of politicians the world over, all contemptibly cashing in on terror, ignorance and want in the service of their grubby whimsies and self-imagined entitlements.

We must be wary of assuming too much, too far, and too soon about a future of SuperIntelligence or, more ludicrously, the dawning of a new age of convergent intelligence where the power of the human brain is augmented by so-called Artificial General Intelligence. Given the power of reason rendered truly Super by a necessarily reflective consciousness, we might expect any AGI worth its salt to ask of us:

With which human intelligence do you propose that we converge? Are we to be amazed at the brute twitchings of the human amygdala, driven by its primal urges and perpetually lurking tigers? Or is the frontal cortex that lifted you clear of the swamp of all those base appetites, now capable at last of getting at higher truths without deception? If neuroscience is understanding more about the reflective effects of aggression on the brain, can we relay this knowledge to the twitter trolls, the market grifters, and all those venal politicians?

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