American Abundance, Lizard Cores and the Parable of the Pheasantby David Zahl on Oct 18, 2011 • 8:39 am 2 Comments
Michael Lewis attempts to uncover the why the Californian economy has “cratered,” and why it is the state most at risk of a prolonged crisis, in his Vanity Fair article “California and Bust.” He’s essentially using the golden state as a petri-dish to look at the factors that have led to the current downturn. While this blogger’s eyes glaze over at some of the economic fine print, the interactions with Arnold are interesting, even more so is the brief interview with British neuroscientist Peter Whybrow in which they discuss the psychology behind American abundance, ht CR:
The road out of Vallejo passes directly through the office of Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. 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,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), and 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 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 the society. The $5 million 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 short-term rewards.
What happens when a society loses its ability to self-regulate, and insists on sacrificing its long-term interest for short-term rewards? How does the story end? “We could regulate ourselves if we chose to think about it,” Whybrow says. “But it does not appear that is what we are going to do.” Apart from that remote possibility, Whybrow imagines two outcomes. The first he illustrates with a true story, which might be called the parable of the pheasant. Last spring, on sabbatical from the University of Oxford, he was surprised to discover that he was able to rent an apartment inside Blenheim Palace, the Churchill family home. The previous winter at Blenheim had been harsh, and the pheasant hunters had been efficient; as a result, just a single pheasant had survived in the palace gardens. This bird had gained total control of a newly seeded field. Its intake of food, normally regulated by its environment, was now entirely unregulated: it could eat all it wanted, and it did. The pheasant grew so large that, when other birds challenged it for seed, it would simply frighten them away. The fat pheasant became a tourist attraction and even acquired a name: Henry. “Henry was the biggest pheasant anyone had ever seen,” says Whybrow. “Even after he got fat, he just ate and ate.” It didn’t take long before Henry was obese. He could still eat as much as he wanted, but he could no longer fly. Then one day he was gone: a fox ate him.
The other possible outcome was only slightly more hopeful: to hit bottom. To realize what has happened to us—because we have no other choice. “If we refuse to regulate ourselves, the only regulators are our environment,” says Whybrow, “and the way that environment deprives us.” For meaningful change to occur, in other words, we need the environment to administer the necessary level of pain.
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