Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Bottom Half

I've listened to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion for years. One of my favorite parts is his tagline for the fictional town his radio character is from, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. He always says Lake Wobegon is "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." No mean feat, since average sort of implies some above and some below.

The idea of levels put me in mind of Maslow's Triangle, or Hierarchy of Needs. I first learned about this in a high school psychology class, many years ago. Here's an image of it, taken from the Wikipedia article on the subject:
Maslow theorized that people can only advance to a higher level of development and "self-actualization" when their lower needs are met. So basically we have to meet our survival-level needs of food, water, sleep, sex, etc., before we can begin to meet needs for security of body, employment, resources, etc. And those safety/security needs must be met before we can love and belong to a group of friends or family. Once we have love, we can then move on to self-esteem, confidence, respect, and the like. And finally, after we learn to love others and ourselves, we can become "self-actualized." The chart shows self-actualization to include "morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts." Sounds pretty nice, and pretty rare.

There's another perspective we can use to see how this works. It's called the "triune brain." Here's an image.

We actually have three brains, all rolled up in our heads. The first and lowest--barely more than a wide spot in the neurological road as an enlargement at the top of the spinal column--is called the Reptilian or R-Complex. It's called that because that part of our brain is very similar to the brains of reptiles. It's the surviving part of our brain-- the part that deals with instinct, survival needs, and aggression. The reptilian brain is the most primitive part; it can't go any higher than hunger, temperature control, fight-or-flight fear responses, defending territory, and keeping safe.

The only "emotion" used by the reptilian brain is fear. Fear of starving, fear of not reproducing, fear of cooking as you bask on the warm rock, fear of losing your territory, your mate, or the egg you just heisted from the chicken coop. On the triangle, the reptilian brain is the boss of the bottom two levels. All of the reptilian brain, and all of Levels 1 and 2, boils down to acquisition and security: getting enough to live, and keeping it.

The second brain is called the Limbic System. The word limbic comes from Latin, and means shell, arc, or girdle, so you can think of the limbic system as a shell or girdle surrounding the reptilian complex. It's the part of our brain that is similar to the brains of older mammals--dogs, cows, horses, even mice--basically all the other land mammals, except primates. It's the feeling part of the brain. On the triangle, the limbic system is responsible for the addition of Level 3--where we see friendship, family, and intimacy, not just in the protective or survival sense, but in a sense of actually valuing others for companionship, fondness, and love. It's where you stop hanging around with others because they can protect you or give you stuff, and stay because you like them. The limbic brain is what's working when a dog (an instinctive creature in many ways), will be excited and happy to see its owner who is mean to it or starves it, instead of trying to attack and eat him. The dog truly loves the beast, even to its own detriment.

The third brain, the neocortex, is the "highest" brain. It's thought to only exist in primates and and cetaceans like dolphins (although I personally believe that some other animals have developed at least a bit of its function). "Neo" comes from Greek and means new or recent, and neocortex is the most recent part of the brain to exist. The neocortex is the thinking part of the brain. It's responsible for "higher thought," such as storing and accessing complex memories, advance planning, abstract thought or making "connections" between unrelated things, critical thinking, consciousness, and imagination. On the triangle, this part of our brain is what we have to use to get above level 3. And it's where we, as average humans, are supposed to be, brain-development-wise. Above the dogs and cats and cows and mice.

But, unlike in Lake Wobegone, the vast, vast majority of people fall below average, and spend their time not in the "higher thinking" neocortex, not even in the "feeling" limbic system, but slumming in the "surviving, competing and securing" reptilian brain. Think about it.

For most people, the vast majority of time is occupied with work (Level 2 security)--and getting and taking care of our stuff (Level 1 survival or Level 2 security). Our "recreation" is often about shopping, dining, or social medial which is looking at, eating, or talking about getting more stuff. Frequently our recreation is watching and obsessing about sports, which is symbolic competition and survival struggles. All Levels 1 and 2.

Our other entertainment is popular media, like TV and video games. Probably 95 percent of what you see there is below level 3.

Reality shows? Levels 1 and 2. Some are about competition--outsmarting or out-scheming others to make yourself the winner and them the loser. Some are just garden-variety voyeurism where we watch other people who are "more messed up" than we are so that we can feel superior and less afraid of our own shortcomings. Dramas? Level 2. Cop and doctor and lawyer shows are about showing how everything from crime to illness to "justice" is all under control of the heroes, and not at all scary or uncertain--security. Fashion and home-fashion shows? Level 2. It's about having the right stuff to show yourself not to be inferior or an outsider--security. Documentaries? Well, once in awhile you might get an exception, but most are Level 2. Let's watch about the Holocaust, with no parallels drawn to anything happening now, and convince ourselves that this could happen "never again," then switch to the news to watch the vilification of Muslims or illegal immigrants. News? Level 2 on a good day. Ads? If you don't buy this, you won't be as good as everyone else--Level 2, tops. Video games are usually either searching for stuff, or shooting stuff. Level 1.5.

Even most people's "spiritual life" is Level 2. Going to church to be allowed to go to Heaven or to avoid Hell is survival-based Level 1, just on an eternal scale. Going to church to gossip about people's clothes or make business contacts is security-based Level 2. Going to church to enjoy how advanced you are and to condemn other people who aren't--I don't need to tell you what that is, do I?

In fact, I had a hard time coming up with activities that I understand "normal" people do on a regular, day-to-day basis that are even Level 3, much less above. Some examples I thought of: having a cuddle and a bedtime story with your kid, doing volunteer work without expecting any recognition or accolades for it, spending time with friends where you just enjoy their company (not compete over a sport, shop for more stuff, or other lower level activities). So there are some relatively common Level 3 activities, but they take a distant backseat, in terms of time spent, to our more reptilian pursuits.

So what's my point? Simply this: if our cosmic "job," if you will, is to be human--to use the equipment and advantages we have to their best use, we're not doing it. We're "higher mammals," and yet we spend almost all of our time in the reptilian part of our brains. We rarely muster a foray into the limbic, feeling, area of the older mammal, much less into the higher realms of the neo-cortex. We've allowed ourselves to be bogged down in the area of bare survival, mindless acquisition, and primitive competition to the point that we squander our spiritual and mental selves in the equivalent of the evolutionary primary grades, instead of graduating to the Level 3 limbic and beyond. And we need to stop it.

Of course there's always going to be some time we've got to spend in the mental and spiritual basement--just getting stuff done because it has to be done to get by. But we need to do it knowing that's what it is-- that it's the dregs, and not the meaning of life.

And then, in the time we have left, we need to do something better, not more of the same. Replace TV with conversation or gardening or woodworking or painting or singing or playing music or playing a board game with your family. Replace reptilian "sports religion" with individual or group fitness activities. Replace empty addictive behaviors like compulsive websurfing or social media with real life creativity and community,--maybe a hobby and joining a group to learn more about it. In short, spend more time exercising your mammal brain.

The biggest first step would be just to think often about which part of the brain is telling us something. If it causes anxiety, fear, worry, addiction, or obsession--if it demands more and better and is never satisfied, it definitely has a flicking, forked tongue. If it puts us in a place of contentment, happiness, or satisfaction, it's the warm blooded mammal brain we're hearing. And if it gives us a sense of creativity, accomplishment, spiritual wholeness, or healthy respect for ourselves and others--a feeling that "I'm great just like I am, and just where I am"-- we've hit the mother lode: the neocortex.

And then, once we can identify which brain is activated in us by the different things we do, think and say, we have a choice of where to spend most of our time and mental energy--whether we want to hang out in the bottom half, scratching and clawing, competing and acquiring, worrying and defending, or whether we'd rather put our focus on the things that make us experience fulfillment and satisfaction, love and compassion, creativity and pride of accomplishment.

In the end, everything we need to make the change to the top half is already in us. Three brains. We just have to choose: Lizard, Lassie, or Leonardo.

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