Friday 29 March 2013

Nothing To Fear But Neuroscience?

I just watched Mel Gibson's 2006 movie Apocalypto on television. It's pretty remarkable coming from such a proselytising Christian, because its message to me appeared to be pure Nietzsche - innocent and virtuous pagans destroyed by not one but two evil organised religions, the Mayan blood cult and Spanish Christianity. Early in the movie its hero meets the remnants of another forest tribe who just escaped a massacre, and his father uses them as a lesson: "Fear. Deep rotting fear. They were infected by it. Did you see? Fear is a sickness. It will crawl into the soul of anyone who engages it. It has tainted your peace already. I did not raise you to see you live with fear. Strike it from your heart. Do not bring it into our village." The purple prose may be straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but the content is quite profound. The infectious and debilitating nature of Fear has been well known to those who deal in Power for millenia, from Mongol conquerors and robber barons to US neo-cons. It's been theorised in depth by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Vico and many more, and their theories nowadays find material confirmation in modern neurophysiology, from the systemic effects of corticosteroid hormones that render victims of Fear passive and submissive.

Modern liberal democracies are supposed to have renounced the use of Fear as a political weapon, as famously stated by Franklin D Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural speech:

"... first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

(As an aside, one hopes Barack Obama might rediscover some of this spirit during his second term as he confronts the Republicans' attempt to close down the US government, but I'm not holding my breath). Democratic politics actually took a serious step backwards after 9/11 as regards the handling of Fear. The so-called "War on Terror" aimed at the exact reverse of what its name implies, in effect seeking to re-introduce Fear into Western societies grown complacent. It may  not have been a conscious conspiracy, but rather a contingent convergence of aims between: Islamic terrorists seeking to punish the USA for its support of Israel; the mass media who understand that nothing attracts more eyeballs, faster, than a good disaster; the US military/industrial complex, ever fretful of maintaining its bloated budget; and politicians who know that the promise of security can be an election winner.  

Fear is as important a factor in economics as in politics. In the 1930s, the last time we were in such a deep economic mess as now, it was John Maynard Keynes who best grasped the role of emotion in economic calculation. Confidence is an essential condition for the operation of markets and Fear is its opposite, the poison that causes crashes and bank runs. His advocacy of strong government intervention to restore confidence after the crash became favoured policy for most of the world’s democratic governments from 1945, until Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas's neo-liberal ideas gained influence in the mid 1970s following the inflation caused by the Middle East oil crises. Fear causes people to hoard money, stops them spending and so stalls the economic cycle - the Cyprus bailout fiasco has given us a recent demonstration of its power.

Classical economists worked from the simplifying axiom that human economic behaviour is rational, which it clearly is not, and Keynes' acknowledgment of this irrationality had important effects. Economic actors aren't always able to calculate their own best interests, and markets are not the perfect, self-stabilising systems for disseminating price information of theory. The assumption that market prices are the sum of “rational expectations” (buy if you expect good news, sell if you expect bad news) is a simplification too far. Human behaviour isn't entirely or even mostly rational, as in everyday life (if not in the laboratory or seminar room) imagination and emotion often distort reason. Some traders merely imagine bad news and start selling, infecting others and send the whole market into a self-reinforcing downward spiral. Renowned hedge fund manager and currency speculator George Soros made billions from such irrational markets, by refusing to believe in rational expectations. His 2008 book The New Paradigm for Financial Markets treats of such feedback loops and explicitly separates traders’ perceptions of the market from its actual state. Acting on perceived market conditions changes those conditions which in turn alters the perception. When such feedback is negative we have that self-correcting behaviour that rational expectations theorists so admire, but once in a while it flips into a self-reinforcing howl of positive feedback, producing bubbles, bull runs, panics and crashes.

Keynes's recognition of the role of emotion lead to a crucial and historic victory for the democratic Left after WW2, but his lesson was not properly learned, and nowadays it's the Right that has mastered the manipulation of emotion. Advertisers persuade us to fear bad breath, embarassing stains, microbes lurking on every surface, while proclaiming that we deserve wonderful shining hair that will make us irresistible because "we're worth it". Politicians stoke our fears of immigrants and crime to distract our attention from their looting of the financial system and demolition of the welfare state. The Left is barely able to mount a coherent response to such tactics for several reasons: partly because these were its own tactics (agit-prop), turned against it; partly because its own emotional palette is impoverished and obsessed by history (righteous rage and compulsory optimism); but mostly because a naive rationalism prevails among Left intellectuals that makes them suspicious of emotion and squeamish of talking about it.  

Cognitive psychologists and neurophysiologists are (very early) in the process of revolutionising our understanding of emotional behaviour thanks to smart laboratory tests, as pioneered by Daniel Kahneman, and advances in fMRI scanning that allow observation of living, thinking brains. As with most scientific discoveries their results tend toward the morally neutral, and so can be interpreted and recruited to support opposing political positions. The media tend to be interested only in claims to have discovered genes or hard-wired brain circuits (eg."gay" genes, genes for "selfishness") that confirm pre-conceived views of "human nature", often accompanied by evolutionary just-so stories intended to explain their purpose . Worse still our current popular culture espouses emotion in an incontinently romantic and hyper-emetic fashion: think all that TV-sitcom-speak like "being there for you", "emotional intelligence" and "do you do hugs?", think all those fluffy kitten videos on YouTube. But perhaps the biggest problem of all is that the typical popular understanding of what emotions actually are is profoundly misleading. The phenomena we call "emotions" in everyday life - love, hate, joy, jealously, contentment, amazement and so on - would better be called "feelings" because they are our subjective perceptions of our body's response to the emotions proper, which are unconscious, semi-automatic physiological processes (and far fewer in number than the feelings by which describe their combined effects).

We could revive the archaic term "passions", as used by Spinoza and Hume, to describe these physiological emotions, but that doesn't help much because "passionate" has been co-opted into everything from yoghurt to hairspray advertising. The scientific study of these emotions is called affective neuroscience, and one of its most stimulating and controversial practitioners is the Estonian-American psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp. I can't go into great detail here, but I've written in more depth in this yet-to-be published book chapter. To summarise very, very briefly, all mammals share seven or eight emotional subsystems whose evolutionary roles concern those behavioural basics fight, flight, fornication, play and bonding (the latter crucial to mammals whose offspring are wholly dependent on suckling). These subsystems are located throughout the brain's limbic system and get triggered by the amygdala when it recognises dangerous, sexy or whatever perceptual stimuli. Each subsystem works via a different set of hormones and neurotransmitters, flooding them into the brain and bloodstream so effects are felt throughout the body. This happens automatically and is difficult, often impossible, to resist through conscious will.    

Panksepp calls these fundamental systems SEEK, CARE, LUST, PLAY, FEAR, RAGE, PANIC (others might add DISGUST). The SEEK or expectancy system evolved to govern foraging behaviour. It causes our feeling of satisfaction whenever some goal is achieved by releasing dopamine as a reward. It's implicated in almost all learning behaviour, induces curiosity and motivation but is also responsible for addictions. RAGE, FEAR and LUST trigger aggression, flight and sexuality, mediated by adrenaline, noradrenaline, the various sex hormones and stress hormones like cortisol. CARE and PANIC are two sides of the mammalian parent/child bond: PANIC is that special deep anxiety displayed by young mammals when separated from their mother, while CARE drives her to protect them. Both work through oxytocin, vasopressin, prolactin, brain opioids and probably more yet to be discovered. PLAY drives young animals to rehearse important adult behaviours like social etiquette, fighting and fleeing without causing physical harm (humans, dogs, cats and many other mammals retain its influence as adults). DISGUST causes recoil from unpleasant and dangerous stimuli and is present in most higher animals, not just mammals: in humans it controls our vomiting reflex and is partly regulated by serotonin. The hypothesis is that all our more complex feelings are ultimately driven by these elementary subsystems, working together in various combinations with other bodily processes. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues further that memories get labelled with the emotional state prevailing at the time they were laid down, and that these labels are retrieved and processed whenever we remember, which is why emotion and reason are inextricably intertwined.  

Congratulations if you're still reading after all that biochemistry, but I am struggling towards a political point. In his recent book On Deep History and the Brain, Harvard historian Daniel Lord Smail shows how recent discoveries in affective neuroscience can impinge on the social sciences. He starts from the fact that we're social animals, and that in all social species the context upon which evolutionary selection operates ceases to be "raw" nature alone but includes society and culture. Individuals try to modify the emotional states of others in ways likely to be either socially or individually beneficial. Among ants and bees, and perhaps even lower primates like baboons, such interaction is almost entirely mediated by pheromones (which operate between us too but aren't yet well understood). Human societies employ artefacts, rituals and institutions to release hormones that modify both our own and other peoples' behaviour, in ways beyond voluntary control. Dancing and other courting rituals increase the chance of mating (aka "pulling") through vasopressin and testosterone. Religious services induce trance-like states (serotonin and norepinephrine) that provoke anything from spontaneous preaching to signing up as a suicide bomber. Sporting events promote bonding among our side, rage against theirs, as well as play. And from baboons and chimps, to mediaeval robber barons and Iraqi car bombers, terror has proven effective at subduing and subjugating its victims, thanks to the debilitating effect of the stress hormone cortisol. Why else were most of the traded commodities crucial to the early development of capitalism - like spices, sugar, opium - to do with pleasure, and why are alcohol, drugs and tobacco still so subject to political interference?

Many people on the Left instinctively take against neuroscience, in reaction to the crudely reductionist way it's being used in the mainstream media. I believe we should instead embrace its findings as part of a multi-layered explanation of the way individual behaviour gets aggregated into political force. Materialist explanations of mind need not be reductionistic, while attempting to exclude or traduce the effect of mind in politics and economics - as vulgar Marxists, behaviourists and free market economists have done - just produces disaster after disaster. Keynes lead the way to putting emotion in its proper place, but since then contemporary scholars like Steven Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, Frans de Waal, Jaak Panksepp and Antonio Damasio have made valuable contributions that we need to assimilate.

All these considerations push me to suggest that the conquest of Fear needs to be placed at the very centre of any programme to lift the world out of its current crisis: a programme that's notably lacking from otherwise-admirable movements like Occupy. Such a programme could seek to re-deploy and re-regulate the institutions of both state and private industry to free us from:

Fear of starvation
Fear of homelessness
Fear of illness
Fear of discrimination
Fear of false imprisonment
Fear of torture
Fear of war
Fear of crime

We need to adopt a language of what Isaiah Berlin called "negative freedoms" in place of the positive "rights" that occupy most current Left thinking, and to shift the debate from the sole terrain of the economic where it's been trapped for the last 30 years. For example, don't promise absolute equality of income, but resist granting employers greater freedom to fire. Negative freedoms can be more concisely stated (and breaches more easily recognised) than positive ones. Rather than listing everything that's permitted of right, let everything not explicitly forbidden be permitted. Negative freedoms leave more open space for personal autonomy: the state can't and shouldn't guarantee freedom from embarassment, irritation or boredom. Anton Chekhov's famous credo "My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves" displays a similar spirit: positive virtues whose equality cannot be guaranteed, alongside mandatory negative freedoms.

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