Slaves to our chem­istry

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCHETT

YOU don’t need to have read Mar­cel Proust right through to know one of the key ideas in his very long, ever so re­fined novel is the way a taste, a smell, a sound, can re­cap­ture an ex­pe­ri­ence and shape emo­tions, and the way those mem­o­ries do not al­ways have any­thing to do with what orig­i­nally hap­pened.

For Proust’s char­ac­ter Swann, a mu­si­cal phrase, and for the novel’s nar­ra­tor, the taste of a madeleine, trig­ger emo­tions and mem­o­ries in ways that can change moods or catal­yse a lifechang­ing de­ci­sion.

How­ever, what is hap­pen­ing to Swann is not nec­es­sar­ily some sort of epiphany but the brain re­spond­ing to the mu­sic by re­leas­ing nat­u­ral opi­ates. ( Sadly, I can find no ev­i­dence that this oc­curs with muffins.)

Wel­come to the world of neu­ro­science, the dis­ci­pline that of­fers ex­pla­na­tions of hu­man be­hav­iour that are as con­fronting as any idea since we stopped as­sum­ing that the life of the mind was a con­stant strug­gle be­tween what God hoped we would do and what Satan wanted.

Ar­gu­ments that we be­have in ways shaped by bio­chem­i­cal re­ac­tions de­signed for a pre­his­toric world, where hu­mans lived to find food and re­pro­duce early and of­ten, and died young, are not new. But ideas that see hu­mans as driven by chem­i­cal com­mands from the brain that we have in­her­ited from our an­te­dilu­vian an­ces­tors change all un­der­stand­ing of our ac­tions in ev­ery­thing from love to lit­er­a­ture.

What is alarm­ing for those who as­sume there are ar­eas of life where we are ever so sen­si­ble, such as pol­i­tics and eco­nomics, is the way sci­en­tists are start­ing to see bi­o­log­i­cal, not ra­tio­nal, ex­pla­na­tions for our be­hav­iour. Be­cause, as well as de­cid­ing what sen­sa­tions we value, our brains can work in ways quite dif­fer­ent from what rea­son re­quires in de­cid­ing ev­ery­thing from the way we vote to what we spend.

In its vul­gar ver­sion, neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy holds that rather than act­ing ra­tio­nally, cal­cu­lat­ing the odds of an in­vest­ment, con­sid­er­ing which can­di­date will do the least dam­age, our de­ci­sions are shaped by pat­terns of be­hav­iour de­signed for our primeval past, when op­por­tu­nity cost meant de­cid­ing whether to eat all the day’s kill in one go.

As eco­nomics jour­nal­ist Ross Git­tins put it in a speech to a Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion con­fer­ence in Au­gust: ‘‘ Neu­ro­science tells us that the prim­i­tive, more in­stinc­tive and emo­tional part of our brain of­ten over­rides — or beats to the punch — the more re­cent, more log­i­cal part of our brain.’’ Ac­cord­ing to Git­tins, the ba­sis of ortho­dox eco­nomics ig­nores hu­man be­hav­iour in favour of the ideal of the al­ways ra­tio­nal in­di­vid­ual, when our her­itage makes us a herd species, keen to con­form in ways that win the plau­dits of our peers.

So, just as Swann’s re­sponse to mu­sic and cake is based in his brain chem­istry, rather than the re­fined sen­si­bil­i­ties Proust pro­vided, what we do with our money may have less to do with ra­tio­nal eco­nomics than with what our brain chem­istry tells us to do, which is what the brains of our an­te­dilu­vian an­ces­tors told them to do.

The same ideas are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion in pol­i­tics, no­tably by Drew Westen in his new book, The Po­lit­i­cal Brain . As with be­havioural eco­nomics, Westen ar­gues, the in­tel­lec­tual her­itage of the En­light­en­ment, with its em­pha­sis on the ca­pac­ity of man to rea­son, is plain wrong; the idea of a dis­pas­sion­ate mind, ‘‘ that makes de­ci­sions by weigh­ing the ev­i­dence and rea­son­ing to the most valid con­clu­sions bears no re­la­tion to how the mind and brain ac­tu­ally work’’. For con­clu­sive ev­i­dence, he ar­gues, ‘‘ when cam­paign strate­gists start from this vi­sion of mind, their can­di­dates typ­i­cally lose’’.

Much of Westen’s work is an ex­pla­na­tion of why US Democrats are de­feated in so many elec­tions he thinks they should win. Democrats fail be­cause they pitch to peo­ple’s real- world in­ter­ests: wage rates, work­ing con­di­tions, health care. Repub­li­cans win be­cause they ap­peal to peo­ple’s val­ues, which are based in their emo­tions. It’s a les­son La­bor has learned, demon­strated by the elec­tion prom­ise to pro­tect ‘‘ work­ing fam­i­lies’’, as dis­tinct from all those in­do­lent Aus­tralian aris­to­crats who vote for the con­ser­va­tives.

Westen ex­plains at length how po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns based on neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy would work and it’s all in­ter­est­ing stuff. But it is also alarm­ing, demon­strated in a re­mark buried deep in the book: ‘‘ You can slog it out for those few mil­lime­tres of cere­bral turf that process facts, fig­ures and pol­icy state­ments. Or you can take your cam­paign to the broader neu­ral elec­torate, col­lect­ing del­e­gates through­out the brain and tar­get­ing dif­fer­ent emo­tional states with mes­sages de­signed to max­imise their ap­peal.’’

It’s not far from this ar­gu­ment to the as­sump­tion that elec­tors are dills, slaves to what­ever their brain chem­istry com­pels, just as we are rarely ra­tio­nal ac­tors in be­havioural eco­nomics. It is here that an an alarm­ing ap­pli­ca­tion of both ideas be­comes ap­par­ent. If we are in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing what is best in pol­i­tics or in our own fi­nan­cial in­ter­est, then per­haps peo­ple who know bet­ter should point the way. In eco­nomics this can take the form of pa­ter­nal­ism, where the state en­cour­ages us to act in our own in­ter­est by forc­ing us to save through com­pul­sory su­per­an­nu­a­tion, for ex­am­ple.

In pol­i­tics, a neuro- be­havioural­ist could point to pri­mal fear help­ing elect the gov­ern­ment through its con­stant warn­ings that ‘‘ work­ing fam­i­lies’’ are do­ing it tough, when in re­al­ity pros­per­ity fu­elled in­fla­tion across all in­come groups is the greater eco­nomic risk.

But even if our brain chem­istry dic­tates that we act out of in­stinct and emo­tion, as op­posed to ra­tio­nal self- in­ter­est, since when was there any ev­i­dence that the state al­ways know best? Nor is there much of a case for tak­ing pol­icy out of pol­i­tics by pitch­ing ev­ery­thing to our emo­tions, un­less we want to re­duce ev­ery­thing to car­i­ca­tures of good and evil.

And even though our emo­tions and ac­tions are in­flu­enced by our bio­chem­i­cal her­itage, other fac­tors shape how and what we think.

As David Brooks re­sponded to Westen’s book in The New York Times , ‘‘ the best way to win votes is to of­fer peo­ple an ac­cu­rate view of the world and a set of poli­cies that seem likely to pro­duce re­sults. This is how to make vot­ers happy.’’ And as Ste­fan Klein points out in his The Science of Hap­pi­ness , the brain is mal­leable and can change even when we are adults.

Per­haps the trick is to out­smart our chem­i­cal codes and train our brains to act in the ra­tio­nal best in­ter­est of our­selves and the peo­ple we love, even if this is dif­fer­ent from what our an­cient an­ces­tors would have wanted. Now there’s an im­age we can sell to our­selves.

■ match­etts@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.