/ 12 January 2024

The Other: How our brains create prejudice

Health And Heart
Something old, something new: Brain scans can demonstrate humans’ love of familiar patterns as well as the excitement – and anxiety – of the unknown, and the author makes the case for the usefulness of both. Photo: AFP
Dr Skye

We are pattern-seeking creatures who tire of familiarity. While constantly looking for new experiences, new ideas, new clothes, new landscapes, we try to orientate ourselves against what we know. How do we reconcile this splitting that is so ingrained in our biology? And how do we use this inclination to find self in the other to better our understanding of one another?

Our brains are constantly looking for positive feedback. Yes, this is a familiar place. That’s an animal I recognise, a voice I know. There is safety in the known landscape. Anxiety sets in when we feel displaced, affronted with newness. And yet, many of us yearn for that newness — in context, relationships and the intimacy of our bedrooms. Something of the other is often as alluring as it is frightening.

With globalisation, travel and technology, we run the risk of sacrificing our differences and becoming an homogenous, vacant mass. While familiarity, or so they say, can breed contempt, it is also safe, predictable, unchallenging, and the internet and social media plays on this human trait by congratulating you over and over with more content that aligns with your worldview. Your digital footprint ensures that everything that you think about, try to purchase or read is reinforced by new versions of the same thing. We risk being reduced by the virtual domain to an echo chamber of uniformity. 

How do we harness this technological access to people’s inner worlds and share truths, challenges and new doors of perception to save the world? I have just spent nine days in Morocco. It was a balm to see, smell, eat, immerse in newness. It’s a surreal dream to return to the familiar pace of my life, my children, my exercise routine, my job. And it makes me wonder, how differently can I embody my life more brightly, how else can this look? 

We are designed for pattern seeking. Even while wandering the Essaouira harbour, I couldn’t help but try to locate myself — this is Kalk Bay meets Rishikesh. In the throws of all new romance with person, place and time, we are constantly running past experience to cross-reference. It’s no coincidence that fractals are the building blocks of the material realm. The more often we know what to expect, the better we can navigate and predict our worlds. And the better we are at knowing what to expect, the greater a sense of the illusion of control we have. This is helpful for survival. Every time you are hunted by a lion, run! 

Ironically, it’s this behaviour that keeps our worlds small, prevents us from self-development and enables the perpetuation and power attributed to antiquated ideas and destructive thinking. How is it that in 2023 most of our continent is in civil war or is under the death cloud of a terrorist insurgency?

I’m struck by our often absent ability to seek familiarity in a person that is other. In conflict with humans, we are much more adept at recognising what is different about us, rather than what is the same. And truthfully, so much is the same. We are, most of us, seeking a refuge from the alone and relentless experience of being alive. And we seek this in each other and in the full spectrum of pleasure and joy that is accessible to the human body and mind.

Education systems are compelled to meet a new need in the world. They must foster a love and respect for the other. If you can investigate and converse with the other with an open curiosity, your world is certain to grow and your vision is more likely to condemn those human traits that reap darkness. 

I have always had this idea that my profession has an inherent ethical fibre, that medicine is exempt from the shadows of politics, xenophobia and economics, but I now know this to be a naïve idea. Medical science was born into a paradigm of slavery, sexism and racism. The most dramatic advances in gynaecology were made through experiments on owned black slave women without anaesthesia. People of colour were given syphilis non-consensually, and treatment was withheld from them in the Teskegee trial so that physicians of the time could track the full trajectory of the disease. These subjects were deprived of treatment when it was identified for the research to be complete. 

Women were excluded from clinical trials until the 1960s because they were thought to be too hormonally turbulent to deduce good data. Aristotle defined the woman as a mutilated man. And even religion has shaped treatments and understandings of pathology over time. The Egyptians have ancient records of disease data that attributed symptoms to disease-causing demons. 

Economics rears its head everywhere in the options we have for patients; it drives every medical choice that we make. And the education that doctors receive is often tainted or skewed by those who profit from the decisions we make in clinical practice. This is a kind of othering in itself — the uneducated, the impoverished, the enslaved at the mercy of the economically or professionally empowered. Uzra Zeya, of Alliance for Peacebuilding, writes: “I believe that whenever there is an effort intentionally or unintentionally to erase, diminish or discount the cultural lived experience of any person or group it is in the service to violence and oppression.”

To emerge from this dark night of the collective soul, we need to seek out and embrace the other, in humanity, in every intellectual endeavour and scenic landscape and in ourselves. We need to do this outside of the dogma of religion, politics and privilege. We need to look at what makes us fearful, rageful, afraid, and ask, why? 

I saw musician Dave Matthews live and the experience of being in a diverse crowd of dancing, smiling, awestruck people renewed my faith in humanity. If we find new ways to cultivate collective effervescence — psychologist Dacher Keltner’s phrase — we might have a chance to displace the sinister powers at play. What connects us is what is true in all of us, and that exists separate from colour, race or creed. It is our common desire for community, acceptance, care, love and touch. 

May you take the essence of this deep knowing with you into this new year and put your feet in the shoes of the other to recognise and identify their pain, fear and yearnings as the very same as your own. 

Skye Scott is a GP based in Sandton. She has a special interest in patient education, integrative medicine and mental wellbeing. You can find her podcast, Health with Heart, on Apple Music and Spotify.