Slaves to our chemistry
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