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We Are Neurologically Fucked

By Tim Murray

20 July, 2009

Less immediate threats are beyond human comprehension while immediate gratification commands our attention

Nicholas Kristof makes an cogent argument in “When Our Brains Short-Circuit”.

He maintains imminent threats grab our attention “while our brain circuitry is often cavalier about the future”. It is a programming well suited to the risks we encountered in the pre-historic age but woefully inept in meeting more abstract or distant 21st century challenges that threaten to extinguish our species.

“Evidence is accumulating that the human brain systematically misjudges certain kinds of risks. In effect, evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we aren’t well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.

If you come across a garter snake, nearly all of your brain will light up with activity as you process the “threat.” Yet if somebody tells you that carbon emissions will eventually destroy Earth as we know it, only the small part of the brain that focuses on the future — a portion of the prefrontal cortex — will glimmer.”

But I should like to complement Kristof’s analysis with a slightly broader assessment of our cognitive impairment. I concur that we are congenitally designed to focus on short-term threats, and would even make the blunt assertion that as a species we are “wired’ to self-destruct. However the inability to go beyond the immediate and the imminent is not simply a failure to apprehend the future, but is the consequence of a deliberate survival mechanism, if evolution could be credited with foresight. Both individually and collectively we simply cannot take in all of the potential dangers that lie in wait for us. To so would be too overwhelming . Metaphorically speaking we have been installed with a “breaker switch” which shuts down anxiety over-load by preventing paralytic fear from taking hold. We cannot permit fear of death to overcome us. We need the nourishment of mental comfort food, religion---not truth---to “get through the night” and find meaning in an existence which denies it.

In short, we are programmed for delusional optimism---willful ignorance of blatantly obvious facts, facts like our own mortality and the mortality of the human race. We can’t face our own death or the death of humanity itself. We need false hope to carry on. A life with meaning demands a belief in an after-life, if not a place in a physical heaven or a posthumous consciousness as disembodied spirits, then a belief that we will leave a durable legacy. There is a fundamental human need to “believe” that cannot be uprooted by reason or science. Hence the strong aversion people have to negative thinking. Undermining morale with the truth is identified as the most anti-social act imaginable. That is why atheism is universally regarded as abhorrent. And we think that we can change that? Our enterprise is perhaps as futile as trying to teach pythons to become vegetarian or cats to love swimming.

People have a limited tolerance for bad news. Too much and we react with black humour, displacement behaviour and/or denial. Certainly the media promotes this mentality and blockades negativism, but in doing so it gives the audience what it wants. Escape. Even “the news” must be presented in an entertaining form. The need for mindless entertainment, for addictive consumerism, is the flip side of the increasing absence of creativity in the workplace, which Canadian labour historian Harry Braverman described as the logical extension of specialization, or “Fordism”. Even white collar and professional work is being stripped of creative elements in order that it become more productive. “Speed up” and higher productivity---more “efficiency”-- is the goal of industrial society—not job fulfillment.

And the factory system has been extended to all facets of life. Even leisure activity must be structured. Children can no longer be left to find their own fun, but be channeled and shepherded to organized team sports and a full plate of “lessons” in dancing, skating, singing and the martial arts, to name a few. Lets all make “efficient” use of our time. Downtime and meditation is a crime. We must take “control” over our lives ironically by surrendering to an unnatural tempo. “Power” yoga, “power” walking, “power” naps. No time for idle conversation---time to talk must be arranged by appointment only. And conversations too have been adapted to the factory system. More and more people talk at 45 RPM, like chipmunks on speed. MSN text language is now employed orally. More and more adults exhibit Type A behaviour and begin to resemble the pimply salesman at Future Shop or the Source or any electronics store. They speak like disc jockeys terrified to leave more than a second of dead space between their rapid sentences. They treat your measured responses with barely concealed irritation. Cultivated impatience with any message that requires patient elaboration is the requirement of a consumer economy that inculcates quick dissatisfaction and a desire for immediate gratification. People even channel surf through relationships and jobs.

The result of assembly-line living is both more stress and more boredom, boredom that is never more than temporarily appeased by more thrills, more variety, more novelty, . The need to overbook our time is best captured by the popularity of the adjective “smart”, which reflects the hopeless ambition to cram more and more into less and less. Smart growth. Smart immigration. Smart cars. Smart buildings. There is never any need to set limits when we can have it all by making it “smart”. Having it all but savoring none of it.

Confinement to a prison cell to read a long novel or write a long hand-written letter would now be torture of the most excruciating kind. But this pattern of living is set by the workplace. That is the first domino. Workers come home exhausted and stressed out. They do not want mental calisthenics. They want R and R. They don’t want to think for themselves, they want release. The only news that can be imbibed is the junk food of short snappy sound bites of pre-digested thought from trusted sources. The ones that never attempt to challenge comfortable core beliefs. Even grim weather forecasts must be dressed up as passing annoyances by cheery bimbos who wish you a “great” weekend ahead. So why would we expect that our sober doomsday prognostications be given the time of day? Why would the harried drones of the modern economy prefer to read about the demise of another rainforest or the loss of tigers or polar bears? People’s magazine distracts them while National Geographic weighs them down.

We are a flawed species with a limited shelf-life. Rigged to expire. We haven’t the intelligence to transcend our immediate wants. Idiot-savants who can perform heart transplants and design spacecraft but can’t see far enough ahead to take evasive actions. We are neurologically handicapped and unfit to reign over the planet. We’re fucked.


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