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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Labels are shortcuts that shortchange society

Published: Saturday, April 10 2010 12:26 a.m. MDT

The human brain is an incredible creation. It is the most complex network of cells that exists in the universe. Even with this award-winning distinction, our brains can't do everything. To accomplish all it has to do in a day, the brain takes shortcuts. It simplifies the innumerable sensory inputs in a variety of ways. One established method of simplification is to label the world. We do it all the time. It is not bad; it is essential to be able to handle everything bombarding the ears, skin, eyes, mouth, nose, position, balance, the need for threat assessment, and handling emotions attached to the sights and sounds. It is exhausting just to think about what the brain has to do, and this is but a fraction of the duties per second.

So there is a need for labels. For example, if something is labeled safe or dangerous, then there is no need to think about what to do. One embraces the first and avoids the second. One doesn't have to deal with why it is dangerous or how dangerous or even if it is really dangerous at all or just a false alarm. It is dangerous, and that is that.

This is all good, but you can see how labels can be a problem. They have a tendency to stick even though times or thoughts have changed. Labels are attached to all sorts of things, including people and ideas. The body acts with all its weapons of defense or offense to protect against potential enemies. Thinking in moments of stress is time-consuming, so labels are the fast and swift ways to strike. It is like the body shoots first and asks questions later. This is particularly true when the clashing of ideas creates personal tension.

The challenge is that ideas are just ideas. The moment they are labeled, thought stops. The brain acts upon the new titles, not on the inherent worth of the thinking. There is also little consideration given to the individual behind the ideas. Is he or she not a brother or sister with a different way to solve problems, and are there not new ideas that could enhance mutual learning?

Left wing and right wing are examples. Labels simplify but make conversation more difficult. Once more, our mind does this to speed the analysis of information and to protect the body from the stress of extra work. It is hard to listen to opposing views. There is a risk that we are wrong, and that is the ultimate threat to our security. Being in error means what we considered politically correct or what our friends tell us or what we hold dear may not be completely true.

People gather in liberal and conservative parties to join with others who use the same side of the brain to solve the tension of political problems. They are biologically united in their origin of solutions. The political left uses the brain power of the right hemisphere and views the problem from the perspective of the whole. Therefore their mindset is to expand the good to the many. The biology of the right is centered in the left side of brain. The prominent viewpoint is that the individual is responsible for the betterment of all. Each is correct because that is how their individual brains work. The reality is there are two halves. The conflict comes if both sides don't see there could be perhaps another way to solve multiple human crises. To fail to combine each half of the brain to work out common problems is a waste. Our national car is not running on all cylinders.

Therefore, labeling freezes the hope to create the best of both worlds. Dismissing someone as an enemy because of labels without actually knowing that person is like being a hired assassin who kills total strangers just because they were labeled as the target. Please don't load, shoot and then aim.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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