Citizen Action Monitor

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 5/13: Mental tension and conflict in the human brain

No 22, Posted by fw, June 14, 2010

Pt 4 of my Bill Rees’ blog series centred on the physical nature of our triune brain. In this post, Professor Rees considers the impact of our triune brain on our behaviour, focusing on the mind’s inner tensions and its associated conflict.  The following selected transcribed excerpts are drawn from Part 3 of the You Tube video, which you can watch below at the end of this post, or on You Tube at  UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 3.

Tension in the integrated mind

“So in many respects humans had three brains, all operating at the same time, each influencing the other in a very tightly integrated way so that at any point in time you may not even be conscious of which part of that brain is actually in control of your actions.

Reason versus Emotion

“There isn’t a person in this room who hasn’t given in to some emotion and then regretted it afterwards. There isn’t anyone in this room who hasn’t done something shameful that comes from the reptilian brain’s stem that they regretted afterwards. And there isn’t anyone in this room who hasn’t at some point made an intelligent decision to override some more primitive urge and therefore, shown that we are capable on rare occasions of allowing our intelligence to override some of these more instinctive or emotional kinds of responses.

“The point is it’s a big mixed-up package and we’re perhaps in transition toward the upper end of the spectrum but we ain’t there yet in its entirety.”

Struggle between Reason, Emotion and Primitive Instinct = Conflict

“There’s tension in this integrated mind. We think we are uniquely self-conscious and rational so we live in that cerebrum. But there are circumstances in which reason predominates and other circumstances in which it does not. And I’m going to argue that reason dominates in relatively trivial circumstances or unimportant ones.

“When your safety or your survival is at stake, when your socioeconomic status is at stake, when your political position is at stake, you will fight to conserve and retain your prestige, your wealth, your power and you’re not often or even usually acting out of intelligence. It’s much more instinctive or emotional at that level.”

“So what I’m arguing is, then, under these circumstances innate behavioural propensities that operate beneath consciousness that the mid-brain and reptilian brain stem will override your rational behaviour. Passion and instinct will trump reason in many, many circumstances in ordinary people’s lives and certainly in the political arena. We see it daily on the news. It’s not as if this is news.

“There’s tension between reasonable rational man having to control the more instinctive passionate aspects of his character. And in fact some would argue that God was invented as a kind of threat to make sure that we did this. . . . It’s this notion that we are this compound individual intention that creates social constructs such as our religions to help reinforce the kinds of behaviour necessary for civilized existence to take place.

“Antonio Damasio, one of the most well-known neuroscientists today, studies the brain, brain function, functions of the nervous system, and he says [paraphrasing] the brain is a gland that generates hormones that stimulate the kind of behaviours that I was talking about. [Quoting Damasio 1994 directly] ‘There are indeed potions in our own bodies and brains capable of forcing on us behaviours that we may or may not be able to suppress by strong resolution.’ You’ve all been in situations where you know you shouldn’t do that but you go right ahead and do it anyway because in that case you weren’t able to suppress that strong emotion by acting rationally.”

“This is the best cartoon I’ve ever seen in my life.” Bill Rees

For copyright reasons, you’ll have to go to this website to view the cartoon, by Robert Mankoff, originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 9, 2002. It shows a speaker addressing a business meeting, and the caption reads:

And so, while the-end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profits.

“This is the best cartoon I’ve ever seen in my life. This is our modern world. And every morning I think of this cartoon when I read the paper. Because the first section will be full of the latest climate event, catastrophic collapse of this, or the soils are eroding there or something. But on the business pages, there’s not a hint that they’re even on the same planet.”

“The whole of the greening of business in my view fits nicely into this particular characterization. Many so-called green enterprises are nothing of the kind. It’s kind of a greenwash over what they were doing anyway. I’ve been in a number of meetings where I’ve heard a senior executive say ‘Of course we’re interested in sustainability and so we’re greening our company. But as soon as it starts to negatively affect the bottom line, we’re outa here.’ That’s a direct quote from a senior executive in a corporate entity right here in Vancouver.”

“So this is not far removed from the kind of truth again that I’m trying to get us toward. The private sector’s responding to the profit potential in the massive trade in carbon credits for example. If you think about what has been the principal response of nations to the rapid melting of floating ice in the high Arctic, to move in and claim territory to get at the oil that’s causing the problem in the first place. So it doesn’t matter where you look, you see these tensions and these manifestations of this conflict.

March 7, 2011 UPDATE: I have recently discovered that a full transcript and mp3 audio recording of Rees’ lecture is available on The Radio Ecoshock ShowClick here to access these free downloads.


End of Part 5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


This entry was posted on June 14, 2010 by in climate change, evidence based counterpower, sustainability and tagged , , , .
%d bloggers like this: