Colson: At last, something to blame — our lizard brain |

Colson: At last, something to blame — our lizard brain

John Colson
Hit and Run

According to one man’s way of thinking, we can blame our national lack of political civility, our determination to erase social compassion and civil political discourse from the national dialogue, on our lizard brain.

And our lizard brain is getting stronger every day, according to this line of thought.

Recently I was reading through a 5-year-old book by the former Wall Street bond trader turned financial journalist Michael Lewis called “Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World,” which toward the end quoted an eminent British neuroscientist, Dr. Peter Whybrow, then working at UCLA.

Lewis’ book was an examination of how three sovereign nations — Ireland, Greece and Germany — and one U.S. state — California — were devastatingly drawn into and then reacted to the various financial catastrophes grouped under the appellation “The Great Recession of 2008-2009.”

Whybrow’s contribution to the book was Lewis’ summary of Whybrow’s thesis that the blame for the world’s seemingly insane willingness to engage in fatally wrongheaded financial risks, which lead to a worldwide financial meltdown, can be found in the most ancient part of our brains, the part casually known as the “lizard brain.”

Our collective lizard brain is growing stronger and more expressive by the day, and appears to be exerting ever-greater measures of control on our actions, our speech and our thinking, Whybrow posited in Lewis’ book and in his own writings.

Which is to say we are relying more on the most ancient part of our brains, the part having to do with the mechanics of the heart and such essential functions as breathing, balance, coordination, defense and the “fight-or-flight syndrome,” as well as mating and eating, according to several sources including the American Museum of Natural History and Psychology Today.

Interestingly, according to psychologists, this part of the brain (also known as the limbic system in some references) also is the section that is most affected by addiction, and which most heartily responds to what we now call “immediate gratification,” getting what we want, when we want it, which generally means RIGHT NOW!

As certain segments of the American population have grown more used to the easy life, to getting things we think we want very badly without having to face up to a host of negative consequences, our limbic (lizard) brain accepts this unearned bounty as a reward for our behavior.

And, being the simplistic mechanism that it is, the lizard brain has responded by becoming more dominant in all manner of ways, Whybrow has hypothesized, eclipsing the role of the more modern, more responsible brain cortex and its recognition that we need to recognize certain social obligations and future responsibilities before we take certain present actions.

This reversion to limbic thinking, the argument goes, can explain a variety of our less salubrious habits and tendencies in America as we know it, including everything from obesity to drug use to the illogical and societally destructive decisions by some to buy things (such as expensive homes) they can’t afford and put off any resulting consequences as things to be dealt with in a vague and somewhat ephemeral future.

This kind of thinking, as may be dawning on the reader, was a central cause of the subprime-mortgage boom that held sway in this country and precipitated the collapse of the housing market, which in turn prompted the recent financial crisis out of which we continue to dig.

I’ve been thinking along similar lines for several years and was intrigued to see it laid out so clearly by Whybrow and, in turn, Lewis.

“The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity,” Lewis wrote, paraphrasing and then quoting Whybrow as saying, “Our passions are still driven by the lizard core (of the limbic system). We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety and food.”

And our society, Lewis concluded, has been set up to give us everything we think we need, whether we really need it or not.

Thus the ongoing hyper-consumerism that drives American society, including the unsupportable premise that every American should be enabled to own, say, a house as fancy and as big as they want, regardless of whether they can actually pay for it, or a government that reflects the deep-seated bigotry of certain people and makes promises to “make America great again” regardless of internal inconsistencies, irrationality and any connection to social realities and historical developments.

The resulting mindset has created a direct path to the very kind of lizard-brain world view that has spurred the candidacy of wealthy real estate mogul Donald Trump. He is the ultimate product of this lizard-brain acquisitiveness and inability to see beyond his own rather limited understanding of how things actually work.

His followers, convinced that Trump is the ultimate expression of their own irrational desires and fantasies, have lined up to put The Donald where he is today — a paragon of selfishness, whose first reaction to any perceived obstacle to getting what he wants is to insult it, disparage it and pretend it no longer threatens his carefully constructed, self-deluding belief system once his attention is turned to something else.

Viewed in this way, Trump truly represents the ultimate expression of a national mental malaise.

Our only hope is that enough people do not share his views and self-delusion that he will lose the election in November and, like Sarah Palin before him, become a political sideshow as we move on to the next national crisis in confidence.

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