Saturday, August 05, 2017

America and the lizard-brained way of life

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In Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Michael Lewis riffs on Greece, Ireland, Germany, San Jose, and the city of Vallejo's bankruptcy:

The road out of Vallejo passes directly through the office of Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at UCLA with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America's society is a by-product of America's success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania: When More is Not Enough, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. 

The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. 

"Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited," he says cheerfully. "We've got the core of the average lizard." Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. "The only problem," he says, "is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food." 

Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. "When faced with with abundance, the brain's ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress," says Whybrow. "In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake."

The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want. The effect on the brain of lots of instant gratification is something like the effect on the right hand of cutting off the left: the more the lizard core is used the more dominant it becomes. 

"What we're doing is minimizing the use of the part of the brain that lizards don't have," says Whybrow. "We've created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of society. The five million dollars you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do---that is the chocolate cake upgraded."

The succession of financial bubbles, and the amassing of personal and public debt, Whybrow views as simply an expression of the lizard-brained way of life. A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control's color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern. 

The boom in trading activity in individual stock portfolios; the spread of legalized gambling; the rise of drug and alcohol addiction; it is all of a piece. Everywhere you turn you see Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for a short-term reward.

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2 Comments:

At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You post this piece yet you support the rise of the automobile.

Boggles the mammalian mind

 
At 11:35 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Please explain the relationship between cars and excessive self-indulgence. Is American mobility intrinsically self-indulgent?

 

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