September 9, 2015

The well-tuned brain by Peter C Whybrow

The well-tuned brain by Peter C Whybrow
Neurosciences and the life well connected

The modern world owes much to capital markets and to the spirit of the European Enlightenment, of which America has become the Grand Experiment. The material affluence we now enjoy validates the Enlightenment principle of individual freedom and the conviction that scientific and technical advance is best achieved by harnessing human reason within a competitive marketplace.

Two simple neurobehavioural questions arise from this puzzling behavior. First, why is it that human beings tend to consume excessively when living in a resource-rich environment, and second, why despite our growing conscious awareness of the challenges we face do we find it so difficult to change our ways.  Succinctly, the human brain is not well-tuned to modern day circumstance.

First our instinctual strivings: the propensity for over-consumption is the relic of a time when individual survival depended upon fierce compensation for scarce resources. Second, that we are creatures of habit confounds our instinctual striving. Everyday life would be impossible without habits. Habits are the brain's way of handling the events of a familiar world with speed and efficiency, essentially a personal autopilot.Third, is the cultural change. Habits of intuitive thought are profoundly shaped and given meaning, by the culture into which we are born.

Today, in the western world, the master cultural narrative is written in the language if the market. ‘Happiness’ wrote Adam Smith in 17659, consists in tranquillity and enjoyment and in America it is happiness that has been the pursuit. Self-interest is the engine of the consumer society, but it is habit and our fascination with novelty that sustains it. The Scottish Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, a time of the insatiable curiosity that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and provided the philosophical foundation for Western society today.

Searching for truth about one’s self is a perennial human quest. The Greeks found it compelling about challenging. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin, considered three things extremely hard,”steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self’.

The capacity for self-restraint is further eroded by a market culture that not only reinforces such acquisitive behaviors, but also has become economically dependent upon them. Rich world economies are focused by necessity upon inducing and encouraging additional behaviors - in the US, consumer spending accounts for some 70% of economic activities. The amount we consume has become a measure of a nation’s vitality. In today’s society the twin drivers of commercial growth are the merchant’s discovery that when faced with material abundance the human brain does not effectively self-regulate desire and the classical economist’s delusional insistence that it does. As portrayed in the media, this is the American dream - a world of choice, material abundance, excitement, energy and self-actualization.

Obesity is now America’s number one problem in public health. Human beings are designed for survival during times of scarcity rather than times of plenty. In America, an abundance of cheap & tasty food and the calories available from the food we consume becomes greater than those required to meet metabolic need.

The fundamental biology of the stress response - the coordinated brain-body reaction to uncertainty and threat - is a vital mechanism of adaptation we share with our evolutionary. A subjective sense of control is of primary importance to the human mind. Thus highly competitive work environments - where pressure is pervasive and repeated confrontation are the norm - are commonly experienced as profoundly stressful.  Most affected by chronic work stress in America are the skilled and semiskilled members of the middle class, both men and women, who toil long hours with marginal financial security, often to the neglect of their families and their own health. Social inequality is also growing in America. Thus, for many middle-class citizens workplace competition increased while job security decreased, engendering a rising level of metabolic stress is frequently expressed as anxiety and weight gain.

First, changing established eating behavior is not easy because we are creatures of habit: foods, healthy or otherwise that we enjoyed as children are those that we continue to prefer later in life. This has long been known to the food industry,. That’s what McDonald’s Happy Meals are all about: giving young children exactly the tasty treats they want and exactly the high-calorie diet that they don’t need.

Powerful cultural forces shape each of us. Dynamic social norms - accepted conventions, about how to live based on attachment, learning, common experience, and shared intention - continuously shape brain development in infancy and continue throughout life to mold character. The preconscious network of reflexive self-knowledge is commonly known as intuition. The industrial society of the 19th century valued discipline, thrift, organization and faith as the path to human betterment, devaluing in the process human emotion and instinct, which the Victorians saw as ‘base’ and immoral’.

Fundamentally the brain chooses in one of two ways: The first is through acquired habit. This method of decision making is quick, reflexive and stimulus drive with the brain architecture involved being principally that of the basal ganglia. The second method the brain has for performing decision making, is fundamentally through a process of internal competition, where the relationship between an action taken -actual or imagined - and its consequence is analyzed and the information retained and coded for future reference. This process of goal-directed action and decision making is primarily conscious and reflective and depends upon the integrity of the orbital-frontal cortex.

In the brain, making choices is not a sporadic activity, but a process designed to produce continuous, adaptive improvement with the pleasurable experience as the goal.

From the perspective of the behavioral neuroscientist, four simple words describe the ecology of educational development: attachment, meaning, habit and trust. These words form a progressive sequence.

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