Brexit and the Brain


On this blogsite up to now, I have touched on many of the sub-fields of philosophy – the philosophy of mind, consciousness, epistemology, philosophy of science and, most recently, ethics. The biggest sub-field not covered is politics.

But then came ‘Brexit’.

Thinking about Brexit has reminded me of many of the ideas within past posts. So here, in a bit of a departure from the normal, I try to relate Brexit to these ideas. It is not really a foray into political philosophy. It is about the cognitive processes behind the political event. It might provide you with some food for thought about Brexit. And the Trump phenomenon too, for that matter.

I’ll start by summarizing apposite ideas from past posts:


Intelligence and Knowledge

Intelligence is about adapting and responding appropriately to circumstances, particularly when they are complex and changing. An important aspect is the ability to make predictions.  A central topic of this blogsite is that of the idea of the brain as a hierarchy of predictors  (Hohwy’s ‘predictive brain’ thesis and Friston’s ‘variational free energy’ theory) that is continuously trying to minimize of surprise, through action and perception. These brain theories are closely related to ideas around bio-inspired ‘artificial neural networks’ that are now making significant strides in various artificial intelligence applications (threatening to take away many white-collar jobs in the near-future).

Our ability to predict events in the world outside improves over our lifetime. Knowledge grows. In the early stages of life, the forest of neurons is very plastic hence highly adaptable but very ‘impressionable’ to stimulus. When mature, the brain has become wise – good at anticipating events in the environment that it has grown up in. But it can get ‘stuck in its ways’ if that environment has now changed. Keynes is famously supposed to have said:

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

But the difficulty is in accepting that the new facts are valid, because they do not cohere with everything else you know.

I have related this mechanistic learning process to Susan Haack’s epistemological ‘foundherentist’ theory which is a synthesis of the competing correspondence and coherence theories of truth. New information modifies one’s knowledge if it both (i) corresponds to how things seem to behave in the outside world and (ii) if it coheres with the other knowledge within one’s head.



Embedded within the totality of our knowledge is our worldview – the big picture of how the world appears to us. It is cultural. We grow up within the culture of our parents’ environment and it evolves within us. Our worldview is a bit different from that of our parents. Our children’s will be a bit different too. But only a bit. If it changes too much, the culture is broken.

The traditional Western philosophy has been one of a non-material Cartesian mind acting within an absolutist objective world of facts; we should be perfectly rational. But our modern understanding is of an evolved, physical mind. Our understanding of how knowledge works has been influenced by the reactions to the horrors of totalitarianism central Europe by Kuhn, Feyerabend, Polanyi and Lakatos.

People are separately building models within their brains of the same (shared) environment – but those models are not the same. People do not believe in things that are objectively right or wrong. They do not believe in just anything. They believe in things because they work – they correspond and cohere. Their knowledge, embodied within the connectome, is neither objective/absolutist nor subjective/relativist. It is a middle course. But still, some brains make better predictions in particular circumstances than others.


Cognitive Biases

So it seems that our thinking falls short of the simple, pure, logical rationality required for decision-making the 21st Century world.  We have cognitive biases that seem to distort our thinking. For example, there is ‘anchoring’ (already hinted at), in which early information (when ‘impressionable’) has a disproportionate influence on our thinking compared with later information (when ‘mature’).

From the work of Tversky, Kahneman, Gigerenzer and Tetlock (focussed on politics and economics decision-making but generally applicable), we understand that these biases are the result of evolution and have endowed us with a cognitive toolbox of tricks that can make decisions in a timely manner that are ‘good-enough’. Much of this is intuitive. Our thinking is more complex, more efficient but less rational.

In our search for meaning, we tend to want to pull our ideas together to create some greater ‘truth’. Experts are liable to focus on a learnt ideology of grand overarching principles – of too much coherence than is warranted. Computers can deal with the mass of data to maintain correspondence between events in the outside world and their predictions and hence can outperform the experts. But straightforward heuristic tricks (such as the ‘recognition heuristic’ – that things we haven’t heard of will tend to be less important than those we have) mean that amateurs can often outperform the theories of experts!



So, much of our thinking is irrational and intuitive. But our thinking is also affected by emotion.

A most basic emotion is fear. The basic animal state of nature is continuous anxiety – to be constantly alert, fearfully anticipating potential life-threatening events.  But we need to balance risk. We cannot be completely risk-averse (hiding in a dark room). We must explore the world around us when the risk is low in order to have learnt what to do for when the risk is high.


Social Cohesion

And well-being is improved by cooperation with others around us. Biological mechanisms of motherhood (such as the neurotransmitter oxytocin) give rise to caring for those immediately around us. Knowing our place within the hierarchy of society reduces physical violence within our community (but the potential for violence means that we do not have an improved feeling of well-being). The flip-side of the empathy that we feel towards those within our ‘in-group’ community who are like ourselves is that it emboldens us against the ‘out-group’ beyond.

Over time, we learn how those around us behave. Through familiarity, we can predict how others will behave in particular circumstances and can imagine how they see us. We have a ‘theory of mind’ – an ability to recognise that others may think differently from you. We formulate how reputable others are and understand that other do that to us. We have a reputation. With established reputations, we can cooperate, able to trust one another. However, we have no knowledge of how reputable strangers from outside our community are. Hence we treat them with suspicion. But that suspicion reduces with more frequent contact. Strangers become less strange, particularly if they are associated with reputable institutions. This allows societies to grow beyond the size where everyone knows everyone else. To act morally is to balance our wants with those of others – to get inside the mind of others to understand what they want and to take that into consideration.



Classic case examples such as Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman show that physical effects on the brain cause different behaviour. This challenges our traditional notions of free will and responsibility. We are a product of our environment. In a classic legal case example, murderer Richard Loeb was spared the death penalty because it was successfully argued that did not choose the (privileged) environment in which he grew up.

But if transgressors cannot be blamed for their deeds, then equally the successful cannot be praised for their achievements. They feel proud of their achievements that are a result of their personal abilities. Little is credited to fortunate circumstances in which are born and grow up.

(Note: a lack of traditional responsibility does not mean that a transgressor is not sanctioned in some way and it does not mean we do not promote positive examples.)


Affluent Societies

Various research indicates that (i) moral behaviour and reasoning of those at the top of the social tree differs from that of the rest of us, and (ii) individuals in affluent societies behave differently from those in less affluent ones.

In short, the affluent are less empathetic. They are more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of others (simple example:  they are less likely to stop for pedestrians at crossings) Piff calls this ‘the asshole effect’! In contrast with traditional intuitive, emotional responses, they favour more ‘rational’ utilitarian choices such as being more prepared to take resources from one person to benefit several others. They have a higher sense of entitlement.

Charitable donations are one indicator of the consideration given to others. Being rich does not generally confer greater generosity. But being married, older, living in rural rather than urban areas or living in a mixed rather than segregated social neighbourhood all correlate with high donations. So does regular attendance of religion services which can simply be attributed to being reminded of the needs of others on a regularly basis.

A general picture emerges of how affluent ‘Western’ societies differ from those with lower GDPs. There is less empathy for those immediately around us. People are more individualistic and self-indulgent. Relationships have less commitment. People live in an urban environment in which social interaction is anonymous and transactional rather than proximate (‘up close and personal’). There is higher monetization.  (Regardless of status, just thinking about money decreases empathy, shifting the balance from others to oneself.) We are less dependent on other specific people and their goodwill. If we want something, we can just buy it with the minimum of personal interaction, from an anonymous provider. There is a high degree of social connectedness but this is not with those outside our own social spheres and there is less interaction with those living in our immediate vicinity. It is a case of ‘out of sight; out of mind’.

But the flip-side of this is that the affluent are more likely to interact with members of the out-group – to be less xenophobic.



Now, applying all these ideas to Brexit…


Confirmation Bias

It is generally agreed that the quality of the political debate during the referendum campaign was dire. Leave campaigners appealed to those with a Leave worldview. Remain campaigners appealed to those anchored with a Remain worldview. These worldviews were formed long before the referendum; they were as good as instinctive. Remain arguments did not fit into the Leave worldview and Leave arguments did not fit into the Remain worldview. Confirmation bias reigned. Arguments became increasingly coherent, but this was because of reduced correspondence to reality! There would be no £350 million a week and there would be no World War III. There may have been undecideds to be swayed from an unconscious worldview to a conscious voting intention but I suspect that it actually changed the minds of very few.


The Failure of Empathy

Recasting what was said above in terms of Brexit, Remainers were more affluent, more self-sufficient and less empathetic than Leavers. They were more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of others. In contrast to the traditional intuitive, emotional responses of poorer Leavers, they favoured more ‘rational’ choices. The Remain argument was that of the financial impact of Brexit. It was in terms of money, and monetization decreases feelings of empathy. Being older and living in rural rather than urban areas correlate with empathy – and correlated with Leavers. But this empathy was for those within the in-group. The flip-side of this empathy effect (such as the effect of Oxytocin) is that Leavers are less trusting of those in the out-group.


The Failure of Trust

From within a Leave worldview, a vote to Remain was a self-interested vote to maintain the status quo. Remain voted as ‘Homo economicus’ – as rational self-interested agents, without caring about the opinions of others. Leavers heard the Remain campaigners’ claims about the bad economic consequences but rejected them because of a failure of trust. The bad reputation of individuals campaigning for Remain was inherited from the institutions with which they were associated with – the institutions of the elite. These were the politicians and ‘greedy banksters’ of the Establishment whose reputations had been destroyed in the eyes of the public as self-interested in the extreme.


The Failure of Experts

Part of this Establishment were the ‘experts’ whose reputation was now tarnished by their inability to predict. Among them were the inability to predict the failure of the banking system and the inability to predict election outcomes. It may be that their expertise was based on a world which has now changed. Some scepticism about expert opinion was justified.


The Failure to Think

Too many Leavers did not think. They accepted things to be true because they wanted them to be true. They did not question them. It was a failure to think for themselves. The stereotypical view from within the Remain worldview was that a vote to Leave was a vote based on ignorance and stupidity; there is some truth in this.

But too many Leavers did not think either – or think much. A large proportion of the Remain vote will not have given much thought to the vote because the correct way to vote was obvious and no further thought was deemed necessary. They did not question whether there might be any merits of Brexit.


The Failure of Morality

I have defined morality as being about balancing our wants against those of others – to get inside the mind of others to understand what they want and to take that into consideration. To want to do the balancing requires intellect and for us to care about the other.

Leavers tended to see the issue in terms of the others – as an issue of inequality. The ‘elite’ others did not seem to care about them. They could see that it would be in the interest of the others to vote Remain. They balanced their wants against those of the other and came down firmly on the side of their own faction’s wants. (When might they have another opportunity for this cri de cœur?)

It was noted previously that there are no issues that are purely moral. A moral aspect is just one of many aspects of a problem. Brexit had moral aspects and well as economic and other aspects. In short:

  • Leavers saw the moral aspect., but
  • Remainers (skewed towards higher intellect) saw only the economic aspect.

Remainers may well find this assertion to be outrageous!


Mindlessness and Heartlessness

So, Leavers were mindless and Remainers were heartless. Remainers did not empathize, or did not think that they should be empathizing. Leavers engaged in apparently mindless political vandalism. But it was not necessarily mindless. One telling comment on a blog after 23 June asked ‘what if voting Leave was the rational thing to do?’ To answer that, Remainers would be forced to think of what the other was thinking. And they might conclude it was not mindless political vandalism after all; it was just political vandalism.


The environment

We are all products of our environment. If we were brought up in a Remain environment (e.g. Cambridge) or Leave environment (e.g. Sunderland), would we have voted differently? Probably. If we recognize this, we will not demonize the other.



I have tried to fit one story into another – to fit a story about the epistemological and ethical aspects of a philosophical worldview into the political story of Brexit! It is far from a perfect match. I have not talked about economics or immigration or identity or globalization or other issues central to Brexit because they do not fit into the story of the brain here. But it is hopefully interesting and food for thought.

Returning to my favourite piece of graffiti:

“So many heads, so few brains.
So many brains, so little understanding.”

The first line is about a failure to think. The second line is about a failure to think about others. The first can be levelled against many Leavers. The second can be levelled against many Remainers.

We must look more to the future than the past. We must look backwards not to blame but to understand why people voted the way they did so that we might understand what might satisfy them. We need to get inside their minds (and the easiest way of doing that is to ask them!).

We can then look forwards – to how we can create a solution that is acceptable for a large majority of us (much more than 52%) – both Leavers and Remainers. Then we will heal the rift. We will see.


Mrs Varoufakis (allegedly) trying but failing to see one standpoint from the position of another.

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1 Response to Brexit and the Brain

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Yeah, many parallels here to Trump’s victory.

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