The Brain Loves to Make Boxes. Which Explains Why I Discovered the Muslim Yellow Pages at My Favorite Lebanese Restaurant. And Why Box-Making Can Be Such a Dangerous Thing

My favorite menu item at my favorite Lebanese restaurant is the meze platter. It’s a little of this and a little of that: baba ghanouj, hummus, grape leaves with their soft, moist rice filling. All accompanied with fragrant, freshly baked pita bread. Um-um-good!

I was still luxuriating on the aftertaste as we exited and not paying much attention to such things as the wire stand sitting outside the door. We were a dozen steps past it before the title of the thick books it contained finally seeped into my olive-oil-sated brain: “2007 Muslim Yellow Pages.”

As I thumbed through the sizable directory, I was little short of mesmerized at the variety of ads—and even more so, at the clearly, and clearly intended, exclusionary nature of the messages more than a few contained. The directory’s motto pretty much says it: “What Every Muslim [italics mine] Household Needs To Have!” Non-Muslims? Well, they very likely will be treated with the considerable courtesy we are treated with at our neighborhood Lebanese café by the businesses listed, but the central intent telegraphed by the Muslim Yellow Pages for North Texas is abundantly clear: For Muslims only.

The moment I got home, I began Googling. What else had I not been paying attention to? Google is seldom frugal, and within milliseconds of each inquiry, I was being told that ethically and/or religiously oriented Yellow Pages are everywhere.

The Jewish Israeli Yellow Pages primarily targets the general Jewish communities in the New York metropolitan area and Florida. And The Kosher Yellow pages, the Hasidic and ultra Orthodox Jewish communities in those locales.

The My Christian Yellow Pages web site combines the features of a “Christian Business Directory” and virtual “Christian Shopping Mall” with “Family Friendly content for Conservative Evangelical Christian shoppers, and Family Friendly shoppers.”

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints can find “LDS businesses” at

The Catholic Yellow Pages® is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing Catholics in the Southern California area with a listing of the retail, commercial, and professional businesses and service organizations that are owned or operated by Catholics.

The Chinese Yellow Pages described at “can offer you a one-stop shop for directories that reach the fast growing, affluent and highly educated Chinese-American communities in the top U.S. markets of Northern California, Southern California and the Northeast.”’s Yellow Pages are more than happy to help you browse “our specialized and current directory of Black businesses and services organizations in your area.”

And on and on it goes; where it stops, nobody knows.

All of which is just additional evidence to explain why acting like we all are of a single species, live on a single planet, share almost identical essential core needs and have almost identical deep desires for a good life for ourselves and our families is such an elusive planetary quality—global age, instantaneous global communications and global everything else notwithstanding.

As the proliferation of ethnic and religious Yellow Pages confirms once again, where two or more gather in the name of past experiences, shared codes for living and shared mythologies, they almost instantly set about creating what one scholar has called “global ethnopoles”—that is, their own local niches through which its members can interface with similar niches throughout the world.

It goes deeper than that, of course. This phenomenon goes straight to the heart of the brain’s tendency to put things in boxes. To its urge to classify.

On things mental, there’s often no better guide than Steven Pinker, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. Here’s a quick Pinker tutorial on the subject of the brain, little boxes and, ultimately, all those boxes-oriented Yellow Pages:

• Neither of the explanations for the brain’s urge to classify that psychology textbooks typically offer are true. No. 1—that the brain doesn’t have enough storage space to remember everything it encounters—isn’t true because with its trillion synapses, the brain has space enough and plenty. No. 2—that without categories, mental life would be chaos—isn’t true because mental life can be chaotic even with categories. Organizing things just to be organizing is useless.

• So, why does the brain organize? So that it can infer things. With inference, you don’t have to see and know everything. You can assign something to a category and then predict properties about it that you haven’t observed but have found other things like “it” to hold. Categories are useful, though, only if they mesh with the way the world works. And fortunately, in our world, things usually do come in clusters (that follow certain laws of nature, the discovery of which is what science is all about). The categories—some fuzzy, some well-defined—are what we also know as stereotypes.

• Our seemingly innate love for stereotypes, and in particular those that elevate our insider status and denigrate outsiders, is increasingly thought to be “a bug in our cognitive software.” It often leads to racism—and to the psycho-socio-economic forces that may make endeavors like Chinese, LDS, Kosher, Black, Catholic and Muslim Yellow Pages such profitable enterprises. Our brain seems to be hardwired for “instant ethnocentrism.” The logic that the brain uses again and again to arrive at this point may go like this: Coalitions (like those formed by people who share ethnicity or religion, say) make sense (to the brain and in overall scheme of natural selection) because “the coalition acting together can gain a benefit that its members acting alone cannot” and the “spoils are distributed according to the risks undertaken.” Or the logic that leads to ethnic stereotypes may be based on bad statistics. Or it may be based on good statistics that are morally repugnant.

While Pinker doesn’t suggest as much in these words, I think he probably would view the proliferation of ethnically and religiously themed Yellow Pages with some concern. The more that the brain divides the world into “global ethnopoles,” the more likely it is that bigotry and its terrible ultimate curse—warfare—will result.

There’s really only one solution: a system of rules that respects and encourages and enforces a rule of ethics that tells us when to turn off our brain’s “statistical categorizers,” superb makers of little boxes that they are.

“Global ethnopoles” are discussed in Michel S. Laguerre’s book: The Global Ethnopolis: Chinatown, Japantown and Manilatown in American Society

The information characterized as a Steven Pinker tutorial came from one of his best-selling books: How the Mind Works. In particular, see the section, “Little Boxes,” pps. 306-314, and the section, “Allies and Enemies,” pps. 509-517, in the 1997 W.W. Norton & Company hardcover edition.

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