“We are both” – The blunder of binary thinking

by Brian on July 5, 2020

in Cancer,Health,Science

I ran into Mark while I was walking the dog one afternoon. He’d been through some tough times lately including a near heart attack while he was overseas that landed him in the hospital for a month and a half upon his return to Israel. It was touch and go for a while. Now he was on all kinds of meds, his gate had slowed and, if that wasn’t enough, he was at high risk if he caught corona.

“I just want my body back the way it was, but I know that’s not going to happen,” he lamented, while the dog rolled in the grass, oblivious to the concerns of humans. “If I didn’t have three little kids at home, I’d be ready to move on. I have moments when I think, if I didn’t wake up tomorrow morning, would that really be such a bad thing?”

I tried to be the encouraging friend. “You’ve worked so hard to get to this point, you can’t give up now!” I urged. 

The truth is, I understood him – I feel that way too sometimes. I want my pre-cancer self and the pre-corona world back. 

But I didn’t say any of that to him. Instead, I asked him to tell me more about how his children were doing.

Mark’s face lit up and he seemed like another person. He launched into great detail about his three daughters, regaling me with stories about how this one was excelling in academics while another had discovered a passion for video production.

And I thought: How can that be? How could he be at the end of his rope one moment and then actively engaged in life a second later? 

How is it possible to be both fearful and in pain and also to be excited and full of joy?

It’s because we as human beings are non-binary. Not in the gender identity sense of the term, but in that seeing ourselves and the world around us as being either one thing or the other is not only untrue, it doesn’t serve us well psychologically. 

Rather, we can – and we must – embody both hot and cold, happy and despondent in the same person. It’s entirely OK to feel sad or depressed at times, as long as you remember that’s not all you are.

When I first put this down in writing, it seemed like such an obvious insight, something everyone must know.

Our brains, however, beg to differ. We may actually be hardwired to think in binary.

Dr. Joe Tsien, a neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University proposed a few years back that the brain’s basic computational algorithm is organized along power-of-two logic – that is on or off; binary.

In order to grapple with “uncertainty and infinite possibilities,” Tsien writes in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, groups of neurons in the brain “form a variety of cliques to handle each basic [function] like recognizing food, shelter, friends and foes. Groups of cliques then cluster into functional connectivity motifs to handle every possibility in each of these basics. The more complex the thought, the more cliques join in.”

Eventually, the cliques resolve in such a way that the brain makes binary types of choices. 

Tsien tested his theory in seven different brain regions involved with basic functions in mice and hamsters. 

“Surprisingly, we indeed saw this principle operating in all these regions,” Tsien says. 

The brain, with its 86 billion neurons, he concludes, “may operate on an amazingly simple mathematical logic.”

While Tsien’s theory needs more testing, we know intuitively that much of what we do comes down to binary choices. Otherwise, how could we make an instantaneous fight or flight decision in a dark alley or choose which fork on a ski slope to take where the decision must be made in a split-second to avoid slamming into a tree?

Matthew Fisher and Frank Keil describe a similar phenomenon in a paper published by the Association for Psychological Science called “The Binary Bias,” Fisher and Keil found that people put information into one of two categories – a yes or no, an all or none. 

The Binary Bias cuts across our “health, financial and public policy decisions,” they write. It helps explain why for some people, a B+ on a test is a “fail” or why a politician is either a hero or a crook but rarely something in-between. 

DNA need not define our destiny, though. How the neurons in our brains operate don’t have to determine how we relate to the world outside. Binary is not always best, and in most cases, we’d be a whole lot healthier pushing past our predispositions.

How would that look?

For me, having a chronic cancer means that I’m sick but not dying – that’s non-binary thinking. 

Living in corona times means we can take all the precautions possible and still not be entirely safe. It also means we might engage in riskier behavior at times and not necessarily get sick. The virulence of the virus, it seems, is non-binary, too.

Politics has become binary, but it doesn’t have to be. You can be pro-annexation and still care deeply about human rights. You can wear a facemask and also be a Republican. You can fight against climate change without being branded a socialist.

I’ve been thinking about calling up Mark to give him an alternative pep-talk. Every one of us has pain and joy, sometimes simultaneously, I would tell him.

Because in the end, we are not just this and we are not just that. 

We are both.

I first wrote about the binary blunder for The Jerusalem Post.

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