This chapter Nate Hagens wrote for Fleeing Vesuvius is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.
It’s about the evolutionary/neurological reasons humans are susceptible to addictions and the effect those traits are having on our collective ability to deal with the imbalances our species has created: climate change, resource depletion, etc. “We would be wise to adhere to an evolutionary perspective in considering a future more sustainable society.”
Humans have an innate need for status and for novelty in their lives. Unfortunately, the modern world has adopted very energy- and resource-intensive ways of meeting those needs. Other ways are going to have to be found as part of the move to a more sustainable world.
Most people associate the word “sustainability” with changes to the supply side of our modern way of life such as using energy from solar flows rather than fossil fuels, recycling, green tech and greater efficiency. In this essay, however, I will focus on the demand-side drivers that explain why we continue to seek and consume more stuff.
When addressing ‘demand-side drivers’, we must begin at the source: the human brain. The various layers and mechanisms of our brain have been built on top of each other via millions and millions of iterations, keeping intact what ‘worked’ and adding via changes and mutations what helped the pre-human, pre-mammal organism to incrementally advance. Brain structures that functioned poorly in ancient environments are no longer around. Everyone reading this page is descended from the best of the best at both surviving and procreating which, in an environment of privation and danger where most ‘iterations’ of our evolution happened, meant acquiring necessary resources, achieving status and possessing brains finely tuned to natural dangers and opportunities.
This essay outlines two fundamental ways in which the evolutionarily derived reward pathways of our brains are influencing our modern overconsumption. First, financial wealth accumulation and the accompanying conspicuous consumption are generally regarded as the signals of modern success for our species. This gives the rest of us environmental cues to compete for more and more stuff as a proxy of our status and achievement. A second and more subtle driver is that we are easily hijacked by and habituated to novel stimuli. As we shall see, the prevalence of novelty today eventually demands higher and higher levels of neural stimulation, which often need increased consumption to satisfy. Thus it is this combination of pursuit of social status and the plethora of novel activitiesthat underlies our large appetite for resource throughput.
One morning Jill Taylor woke up with a headache, and as she went through her morning, she watched as her brain functions slowly stopped working until eventually she realized she was having a stroke. A blood vessel ruptured in the left half of her brain, and as that side of her brain shut down she was temporarily able to observe the world with only her right hemisphere.
This is an amazing presentation.
Her book: Jill Bolte Taylor | My Stroke of Insight
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
That’s from an email that circulated in 2003. Matt Davis is a rscheearcher at Cmabrigde, and here’s his response:
There are elements of truth in this, but also some things which scientists studying the psychology of language (psycholinguists) know to be incorrect. I’m going to break down the meme, one line at a time to illustrate these points, pointing out what I think is the relevant research on the role of letter order on reading…
Read the rest at his webpage.
What’s the difference between singing and talking? Diana Deutsch discovered that a spoken phrase morphs into singing if it is repeated four or five times.
In this short clip from Radio Lab she is explaining how she discovered the phenomenon to the host Jad Abumrad.
Here’s the original phrase again. Does it sound different?
I tried the same thing with a clip from another show. This is from a radio show called Think produced by KERA in Dallas. Krys Boyd is introducing her guest, James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
I just picked a short phrase at random and looped it. Listen to the looped phrase to fool your brain.
Here’s the original again. My brain was tricked.
Diana Deutsch has a couple of CDs demonstrating her discoveries. There are samples on her website:
V.S. Ramachandran explains the neurological mechanisms behind:
- The Capgras delusion – brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposters.
- Phantom limb syndrome – using mirrors to cure patients with imagined pain in amputated limbs.
- Synesthesia – hearing color, smelling sounds, or seeing numbers as colors.
He sums up with his theory of where abstraction, metaphor, and creativity are generated in the brain. I love this guy.
:: Neural Dump
In 1950 Solomon Asch conducted some experiments designed to measure the effects of peer pressure. Groups of students were shown a line and asked to select the line of the same length from another set of three lines and say their answer out loud.
Only one of the students in each group was really taking the test. The rest were actors intentionally giving the wrong answer. The real participant would be placed at the end of the line, and after hearing the incorrect consensus view, 3/4 of them answered incorrectly at least once, and 1/3 of them answered incorrectly consistently. Asch checked to see if they were answering wrong intentionally by conducting the same test with written answers. When they didn’t hear the other student’s answers, they gave the correct answer. This video shows how it was done.
Asch wondered why they gave the wrong answer, but without a way to see inside their heads he had to take the student’s word for what was going on in there. They said things like “it was easier to go along” indicating that the answer was based on some social calculation. When their brain decided it was in it’s best interest to not rock the boat, they would tell a white lie. It seemed logical.
A couple years ago neuroscientists at Emory University repeated the experiment, but this time the subject was scanned with an fMRI during the test. This time the researchers could see which parts of their brains were active while the subject thought about their answer. Again, 41% of the subjects gave wrong answers in an effort to conform to the group, but the real shocker: the area of the brain associated with visual perception was active. The areas that deal with conscious decision making were not. Instead of choosing to conform based on some kind of social calculation, we seem to conform because what we think we are seeing is changed by the opinions of others. They also found that the emotional area of the brain was active in students that went against the crowd.
Here’s an article about the second experiment reprinted from the New York Times.
Sandra Blakeslee | What Other People Say May Change What You See
:: Educated Earth
This BBC Horizon probes the relationship between neural activity and religion. There’s a theory that temporal lobe epilepsy was responsible for the spiritual experiences of some of the founders of the great religions. Richard Dawkins tries on the god helmet to see if he can have an electromagnetically induced religious experience, and Michael Baime gets his brain scanned while he meditates to find out what’s going on in there.
Michael Persinger is the professor with the god helmet at Laurentian University. In this incredibly interesting lecture he talks about how psychotropic drugs work and what effect they have on the brain. There is a long introduction because this video was an entry in the 2007 TVO Big Ideas’ Best Lecturer Competition. It won.
Persinger’s summary from the end of the lecture:
- Psychedelic drugs are effective because they imitate the chemicals the brain produces itself.
- All of us have the ability to make these compounds or they wouldn’t be effective.
- Some people produce more of these substances than others.
- Anyone who can control consciousness using drugs can control the population because they can control the sense of self.
Michael Shermer travels to Michael Persinger’s lab at Laurentian University to strap on the God Helmet. Users have reported out-of-body and other paranormal experiences induced by low intensity electromagnetic patterns directed at their brains by the helmet.