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Oops, wrong brain

John Naish

28th January, 2009

What on earth are we thinking when we go into shops and buy lots of pointless stuff we just don’t need? John Naish says it’s not so much what’s on our minds, but which brain we use when we spend

The past 20 years have given our culture ample chance to understand that spiralling consumption imperils the planet and that earning and consuming above society’s median levels brings no greater contentment. But still society strives ever harder. Even in the midst of the credit crunch, there is no popular debate on using our reduced economic activity as an opportunity to build a sustainable future. Mainstream opinion seeks only to return to the ‘norm’ of perpetual expansion. It’s a prime case of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, believing one thing but doing the opposite: like a 60-a-day smoker, we know our behaviour will kill us, but we can’t stop. Why?

Medical-scanning science makes the answer increasingly clear. Our culture over stimulates the wrong parts of the human brain – the primitive areas that are bewildered by modern life into feeling beset by famine and poverty, despite the abundant sufficiencies surrounding us. This creates great fodder for consumerism, but it threatens to send us knuckle-dragging into ecological disaster. The alternative is currently taboo: changing tack, from a lowbrain culture to one that actively fosters our civilised higher cortex.

This grey-matter crisis results from the way our neocortex, the intelligent brain we evolved in the Pleicestocene era, runs alongside far older systems driven by primordial instinct. The American neuroscientist Paul MacLean calls this the ‘triune brain’, a structure resembling an archaeological site inhabited by successive civilisations. At its core is the reptilian brain, responsible for arousal, basic life functions and sex. The old-mammal brain, which learns, recalls and emotes, surrounds it. The new-mammal neocortex sits on top.

We love to believe (because our neocortex tells us) that our civilised brain makes the decisions. But studies show that the opposite frequently occurs. Many actions are determined bottom-up. Our primitive circuits react and decide first, then we become aware – and consciously rationalise our judgments. The amygdala, the core of our ancient fear and attachment circuits, can react to a threat in less than 100 milliseconds. It takes about 600 milliseconds for our higher brain to process an experience and register it consciously. Research published in April 2008 in Nature Neuroscience by Germany’s Max Planck Institute says that we may consciously make ‘decisions’ up to seven seconds after the lower brain has taken the casting vote. This is dangerous because our lower brain is bamboozled in myriad ways by 21st-century culture. Take a simple stimulus such as video screens: our primitive brains have a rotten sense of geography, so when we sit on sofas watching footage of a massacre overseas, our instinctive minds don’t think, ‘Phew, that was thousands of miles away.’ They believe that it must be close by, within the narrow scope of a Neolithic human’s wanderings. We feel compelled to learn everything we can about this ‘nearby’ threat, so stay glued to the news. The constant stimulation can cause continual stress. Some psychologists believe the effect is so strong that we should limit our newswatching to only 30 minutes a day or risk anxiety-related depression.

Even worse, perhaps, our info-drenched culture may ultimately stop our species evolving by killing our desire to switch off the screens and do anything purposeful. The danger lies in the lure of virtual reality, which provides short-cuts that enable our brains to experience exciting biological cues, such as attractive and willing mates, that they have been built to seek in the real world. As the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller points out in What Is Your Dangerous Idea? (2007), our subconscious brains don’t care that these stimuli exist only as cheap pixellated fakery, they still get turned on just as much. This can explain why people increasingly prefer to watch porn rather than pursue sexual intimacy in a complex human relationship, play virtual video sports rather than practise real-world athletics and watch Friends rather than spend time with friends.

Celebrity stupor

Celebrity culture itself addles our lower brains, which think that beautiful product-endorsing people they keep seeing are the alpha members of their virtual tribe. Our instincts urge us to imitate the celebs’ every habit in the hope of gaining entry to the VIP circle. We are also wired to perpetually fear being snubbed by such alphas. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University who has conducted tests where individuals are made to feel rejected from attractive groups, says that the ostracism makes their IQ and self-control plummet and their impulsivity rise. ‘It strikes a blow that seems to interfere with our ability for complex reasoning,’ he reports in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Oct 2002). ‘You may do stupid things.’ Thus our constant sense of exclusion makes us more likely to dumbly, impulsively buy stuff – because it is ‘owned’ by figures whom we desperately want to love us.

We needn’t be slaves to such low-brained drives. Creating a culture that gives our reasoning higher cortexes time and encouragement to intercede can liberate us from much confusion. For example, just pausing between deciding to buy something and taking it to the check-out dramatically increases the chance of a no-sale, says a new study in the December 2008 Journal of Consumer Research. The pause gives our higher brains a vital opportunity to restrain a primitive neurochemical response. MRI scans performed at Emory University in 2005 show how the powerful feel-good chemical dopamine is released in waves around shoppers’ brains as they first see a tempting product, then ponder buying it. But dopamine is about the hunt, not the trophy: anticipation, rather than buying, releases the chemical. Once you’ve made a snap purchase, the chemical high dissipates in minutes, often leaving a sense of regret that retailers call ‘buyer’s remorse’. The new study shows that briefly interrupting the purchasing process can dramatically change a shopper’s priorities, from being fixated on the consumer  item to taking a higher-brained perspective – do they really want it in the first place? Taking a walk around the block may defuse our acquisitiveness, but our hurried culture often makes us feel too harried.

Indeed, all this low-brained pursuit of consumerist shadows makes our culture accelerate ever faster as our instincts drive us to chase harder. This further inhibits our civilised higher brains’ ability to mitigate our primeval instincts, because our higher circuits need time to intervene. Robert Levine, of California State University, has seen this time-starved selfishness in action globally. He has measured the exponential increase in pedestrians’ walking speeds in cities around the world, and reports in Social Research (July 2005) that as people move faster, they become less socially linked and less likely to help others. We all have selfish knee-jerk impulses, but it’s what we do with them that counts. In a Yale University brain-scanning experiment published in Psychological Science in 2004, people who are staunchly anti-racist were shown pictures of people from other races. First their amygdalas lit up with primitive suspicion, then their higher regions inhibited this. In racist people, the higher cortex didn’t kick in effectively. But in a world that constantly fires our base brain’s prejudices with perceived competition and threat, we can be left so blitzed that our higher brains don’t get a chance to act.

Lower cortex culture

The challenge of giving our civilised brain regions better opportunities to bear influence is made harder by the fact that public debate on the subject has become mired in accusations of snobbery, amid phrases such as ‘dumbing down’ and ‘intellectual elitism’. Hopefully, science may arm us with persuasively objective arguments for understanding how powerfully the culture we create configures the world between our ears. Increasing knowledge about our brains could enable us to become a neuro-literate society. But given the way we currently over stimulate our brain circuits, could we ever be wise enough to use that knowledge responsibly, to shift towards the altruistic, gratificationdelayed policies that could make sustainable civilisation a reality?

It’s a dizzyingly tall order. But history is punctuated by revolutions in human consciousness, such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwinism, the Industrial Revolution, Freudianism, the car and the internet – all products of our higher brain functions. By inventing the modern massconsumer society, however, our clever cortexes have unwittingly led us into this lowbrained crisis. The hope now is that we can harness our cortexes’ potential to evolve our way out of it – not least by using high-tech communications and networking to begin fostering a more neuro-sensitive culture through lobbying, debate and communitybuilding. As well as brain science, we may call upon a more venerable ally – the lessons of ancient culture. This idea of being able to train our minds out of their Stone Age shortterm selfishness is thousands of years old. Long before Yale University tried brainscanning non-racists, the Stoics developed a remarkably similar theory – that our response to the world had two stages: the first was a knee-jerk primitive reaction, but this might be followed by intellectual reasoning, particularly if people were trained to think in this manner.

Breaking free of lower-cortex culture requires us to revive mental habits that are derided as naff by consumer society. A simple but profound example is the practice of gratitude. Our culture actively makes us habitual ingrates, fixated on all the things that we don’t already possess. Consumerism conditions us to pin our sense of purpose on to pursuing the next thing, getting a brief thrill out of its acquisition, then dropping it as ‘so yesterday’ and chasing the next hit. When our soul’s well of thanks is boarded over like this, we lose our delight in the abundance around us. The Roman emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, cautions in his Meditations: ‘Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you possess and thankfully remember how you would crave them if they were not yours.’ Modern research shows how fostering gratitude can boost well-being, lower materialism and create social glue. A report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2003) shows that raised levels of gratitude lower levels of materialism, as people’s over stimulated ‘want’ urges diminish. The study by the University of California, Davis, encouraged hundreds of people to keep a daily record of things for which they felt grateful. It found that they entered a beneficent cycle of kindness: being on alert for other people’s good acts made them willing to reciprocate generosities.

This sense of social connection is eroded by consumer society’s habit of encouraging a primitive mass-mindset where we see ourselves as alienated competitors in a climate of scarcity. We are thus robbed of the sort of generous human interaction that can nourish our neurons in delightful and surprising ways. Scientists who scanned people’s heads as they donated to charities report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Oct 2006) that giving money lights up the brain’s reward system in the very same way that receiving money does. Another study, in the journal Science (June 2007), watched women’s brains as they gave $100 to a food bank. It found that two brain regions – the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens – fired when they saw the charity get the cash. These regions also fire when needs such as food and friendship are satisfied. As far as our higher brains may be concerned, what you give is what you get.

The idea that doing good benefits the doer may be as old as philosophy itself. Plato calculated that the charitable man is 729 times more joyful than the unvirtuous. More scientifically, a 1999 study of 2,500 men, published in the Journals of Gerontology, found that those who did no volunteer work were more than twice as likely to die over a 10-year period than men who volunteered their services. The sense of purpose we reap from helping our fellows may promote robust health. There are evolutionary reasons for believing that generous impulses are wired into our neocortexes: Charles Darwin suggested that we overtook rival species when our higher social brains grew to think beyond survival-of-the-fittest individualism and learnt instead to act for the collective tribal advantage.

Rampant social competition not only denies many Westerners these higher pleasures, it also bars them from attaining the very contentment they think should result from constant material acquisition. Rushing through life quashes our ability to lose our neurotic questing selves amid the eternal now. This ability is a process called flow – a mildly euphoric state that occurs when we are so engrossed in a task that our maundering internal monologue tunes out. Flow, says Mike Csikszentmihalyi, the Chicago University psychologist who pioneered studies of this brain state, results from engaging in slowburn experiences such as learning to play the piano or reading poetry. Sadly, perhaps, piano-playing and poetry-reading have largely gone the way of spinning tops and shove ha’penny. Although they help to develop our higher-functioning cerebral cortexes, these activities can’t be sped up.

Raise the brain game

 It takes persistence to pursue the plain old hard-work paths to higher-brained contentment. As soon as the going gets tough, we are nowadays encouraged to switch to something more rapidly gratifying. Our conveniencefixated society sticks up a sign saying ‘don’t go there’, and diverts us to distractions that offer fast, low-brained fun. But if we don’t persist, then our heads don’t shift, then there’s no hope for real cultural change. We have to raise our brain game. Not least because working to create a truly sustainable culture – one where we consciously restrain our material gratification out of concern for future planet-dwellers – demands robust higher-cortex intelligence, as a new study in Psychological Science (Sept 2008) shows. Yale University psychologists studied 103 healthy adults’ ability to delay self-gratification while their brains were being scanned. Their results show that the best gratification-delayers scored highest on intelligence tests and had the greatest level of activation in the brain’s anterior pre-frontal cortex. The research says that greater activity in this area helps people to manage complex problems, which fosters better self-control.

This effect may also make the credit-crunch particularly challenging for sustainability campaigners. As Daniel Gardner points out in The Science of Fear (2008), come crunch time our instincts tend to override our considered thoughts, even when protecting our planet. In August 2007, 15 per cent of Britons polled by Mori put the environment in their top three concerns. A year later, that figure had dropped by a third to 10 per cent. Andrew Cooper, the director of the research company, Populus, says, ‘There is a direct correlation between how people perceive the economy and the importance they place on the environment. When times are tough, people resent paying more to salve their consciences.’ This is hardly about conscience-salving, but when people believe their immediate interests are threatened, they go into low-brained ‘me now’ mode, rather than focus on higher-brained sustainable strategies that may address the threat facing their grandchildren’.

How do we precipitate change? One way is to co-opt a trick beloved of the marketing men – to play on our low-brained desperation to be one of the in-crowd. As a culture, we need to radically change our icons of the good life, to value different emblems of cool – higher-brained ones such as time, balance and autonomy, rather than trinkets. There are historical precedents: in 18th-century Europe, frugal living was considered a hip lifestyle choice: outside royal courts, luxury goods were often spurned, thanks to the practice of ‘worldly asceticism’, a Calvinist idea that offered the hope of heavenly salvation through diligent use of God’s gifts (aka planet Earth). Puritans and Quakers promoted the ideal of ‘Christianity writ plain’, where it was considered good to produce, but bad to consume more than necessary. Those who lived luxuriously were criticised for squandering resources that might support society.

In order to make ecological policies sustainably attractive, we have to return to those types of cultural ideal (though this time, with scientific underpinning). In the process, we will have to raise taboos about the future purpose of humankind – not least, the question: how should we materially affluent westerners fill our time meaningfully, if we don’t occupy it with getting and spending? Our culture blocks our ears to this quandary pushing us to go out earning and spending ever more. But to change direction radically, we must discuss the alternatives and debate how we can train our brains to promote truly sustainable habits. There is much to address. And the time for discussion grows shorter. But thanks to our lower-brain-driving culture, the debate has not even begun.

John Naish is the author of Enough, Breaking Free From the World of More, (Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2009

 

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