Friday, September 19, 2014

Don't be that Reptile

The parts of our brains that are responsible for the majority of our decisions tie into our most basic desires and impulses predate our history as primates, or even mammals. You may be familiar with the idea of the "triune brain" (McLean 1990), which suggests that we inherit physiological and territorial drives from reptiles, social behavior (along with the limbic system, that implements it) from early mammals, and cognitive strategies from higher mammals. Such a strict division is too simplistic, of course, but makes for a beautiful metaphor.

Indeed, I believe that we are controlled by three classes of drives: physiological ones (hunger, thirst, pain avoidance, libido etc.), social ones (affiliation, internal legitimacy, romantic affection), and cognitive drives (competence, uncertainty reduction, and aesthetics). All goal-directed behavior is directed upon the satisfaction of one (sometimes more) of these drives, or the avoidance of their frustration. Satisfying a drive creates pleasure, frustration a displeasure signal, and these are responsible for learning.
This happens mostly intuitively: the decision function is implemented outside the consciously accessible parts of our minds. It evaluates the relative strength of the urges, combines them with the expectancy of fulfilling them, adds a bonus threshold on the currently active motive, and there we go.

Our drives are the product of an evolutionary selection. Their constantly changing urgency orchestrates a behavior that maintains a dynamic homeostasis, which in turn brings forth a thriving, learning, self-improving primate. It is unfortunate that the environment for which our drives evolved is so different from the one we find ourselves in today. Despite the hardships of a pre-agrarian society, we have reason to suspect that our ancestors were, by and large, a very happy bunch. Our drives are structured to make a hunter-gatherer's existence a very rewarding experience.

Modern life is not so much concerned with being good at hunting down prey with the mates and roasting big hunks of juicy meat over the fire, reveling in the social interaction with our tightly knit tribe and heroically overcoming the many small and large challenges that the elements, the geography and the insidious biosphere throw at us, before they finally do us in. Delayed gratification is an acquired taste, and no gratification is the norm. Depression is the most crippling disability of all, costing more years of healthy, productive life than any other condition. Happiness is no longer the result of following our natural impulses.

Indeed, the evolution of market-driven society has contributed to a perversion of our natural urge-driven behaviors. What we crave is no longer what makes us happy. Food is designed to be addictive and make us systematically overeat, computer games and tech gadgets consume our attentional resources by turning to our drives for competence, exploration and social reward against us, status items substitute for social acceptance, differentiated clothing and cultural accessories pander to our desires for belonging and meaning through individual recognition. The end of the cold war also put an end to utopian visions. The end of the genius cult in academia, the commodification of art and the conditions of the contemporary workplace (varying between the suicide-prevention-netted extremes of the Foxconn sweatshop and the frustration of the Dilbertesque circus) all seem to be designed to improve efficiency of production at the cost of subjectively meaningful existence. Humanity gets reduced to a transparent ritual, an increasingly feeble attempt at glazing over the glaring indifference of an uncaring universe, utterly unconcerned with our existence. We are moving bits of carbon-hydroxide, blubbering temporary meetings of specialized single-cellular organism sharing the same genome, a dead ended link between apes and the imminent extinction of higher mammalian life through impending climate change, cogs in an industrial production behemoth run astray, dust on the surface of a tiny spherical rock, animated by the entropy of a nearby fusion reaction that has already burned through half its lifetime.

We now find ourselves in the midst of the creation of a giant spiritual-industrial complex tasked with the production of meaning. Mindfulness and meditation practice, the boom of life coaching, the resurgence of psychedelics and festival culture, the frenetic resurrection of religion are all part of this. They promise small and large fairytale roles, costumed interaction, mobile devices hooking into our brains in novel, scientifically designed ways to trigger those regions responsible for spiritual experience, dissolving anxiety and overcoming the unbearable frustration of our basic primate urges.

Well, this came out totally differently from what I intended! (Let us blame Y's untimely interference with what I expected to become a serene reflection on the bliss of transcendence of the Reptilian urges.) Because, without being cynical: I think we must embrace it. After all, the universe is what our minds make it to be. Let us find our healthy balance on the rope on which we descend into oblivion. Let us choose our steps gracefully. Let us love and hold each other, giving comfort, and the intimacy of a shared understanding of the fragile, precious gift of our ability to construct the universe into temporary existence in the reflection of our beautiful minds. Let us create pockets of light in the darkness.

Let us perhaps start from this simple insight: What we crave, no longer makes us happy. (This is why we reject the advertising industry as unethical, as the enterprise of the creation of confused cravings, hooking into our primordial impulses. Advertising is like peddling candy to the hungry, porn to the lonely, Adderall to the exhausted, Deepak Chopra to the befuddled.) An ethical, meaningful existence of a modern homo sapiens requires a cultivation of awareness, the understanding and careful dissection of the mechanisms of craving and distraction. We have to become our own spiritual parents, the stalwarts of our consciousness, the loving masters of the maladaptive reptilian and mammalian drive mechanics that haphazardly try to pull our strings. Let us become more mindful, let us learn to be more conscious and awake and aware.