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The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion

History is replete with examples of social organizations, whether a business or a nation, that failed to perceive the realities of a changing environment and didn't adapt in time to prevent calamity. Hubris and a self-reinforced dynamic of mass delusion characterize the waning phases of these once powerful groups. In hindsight we ask, "What were they thinking? Wasn't the situation obvious to everyone? The evidence is so clear!" Here's the question we should ask next: "Is history now repeating itself?"

Anyone familiar with the concepts of overshoot, resource depletion, global climate change, mass extinction, and related ills, wonders why the media, church groups and political leaders do not vigorously discuss these topics. By contrast, those unfamiliar with these issues assume that because they are not covered closely, the problems must not be too worrisome. My view is that science and history are correct, and that we are headed for a major planetary disaster as far as humans are concerned. I've tried to understand why the human brain, on a collective level at least, is apparently incapable of dealing with obvious problems. Here's what I've learned.

For a clue to how the mind works, imagine getting startled in your own home. A shadowy figure lurking in a doorway elicits a powerful jolt to your system. It is only your spouse, of course, but it takes about half a second to realize that. This reveals what neurobiologists can now see with modern imaging techniques: visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought. A false alarm is inconvenient, yes, but a necessary burden. Without that startle response, a lion may have eaten us.

Emotions motivate and guide us. Fear of the lion prepares the body for fight or flight. Love binds individuals into cohesive units greater than the sum of their parts. When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards (feels good) or punishments (feels bad) and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. The neocortex works with our emotions to solidify our plans. We dream about a goal and anticipate the emotional rewards of realizing it. Our self-esteem can be wrapped up in these goals and plans. They become our "mental models," setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are. This is how we become determined to "stick with the program." Mental models may range from the very short term and mundane, such as a plan to jog 12 laps, to lifetime goals and worldviews, such as a career path and religious beliefs.

Another clue about how the mind works comes from a famous experiment on the nature of the brain duality. Two films were made; both included a basketball team passing a ball among them. In one film a woman with an umbrella walks through the scene, in the other film it's a gorilla. People were randomly shown one of the films and randomly told either to count the number of ball passes made or just watch. Now consider the mindset of the counters. They have a goal, they bind this goal to an emotional reward, and they anticipate getting the "right answer" and "feeling good." All of those told to just watch and report anything interesting about the film recall either the woman with an umbrella or the gorilla. Over a third of those counting missed the woman and over a half missed the gorilla.

When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption, aiming to avoid disappointment or disillusionment. Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal. If a gorilla isn't involved in actually passing the ball, then don't pay attention to the gorilla. Depending upon circumstances, this focus can be advantageous or dangerous. If a mathematician is working on the proof of a theorem in the safety of his office that is fine, but doing so on a busy street can be deadly.

A changing environment, such as a busy street, requires us to be open to new sensory inputs and to be willing to modify or even dismiss outmoded mental models. Rigidity of mental models in the face of countervailing information is called denial. Given what we now know about the structure and function of different brain regions, we can understand the physiological roots of denial. The data nullifying a cherished mental model are systematically filtered out before the conscious brain is even aware of them. The expression, "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil," exemplifies this censoring process.

The conscious brain is not a simple dupe however. It can actively participate in the act of denial. This is termed "rationalization," and involves complex neocortical functions. People can erect fancier houses of cards and hold on to their cherished beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Many will admit that is what they are doing by resorting to the expression, "Well, I just have faith," even when the subject is not overtly religious. This point in a discussion signals that the mental model being challenged is very important for the person, and to remove it would cause a serious and painful identity crisis. Who wants that kind of grief?

You can witness this brain duality in operation while watching debates between some of the dominant personalities of our culture, mainly those representing large financial and business interests, and the concerned watchers and interpreters of physical reality, mainly scientists in the realms of ecology, geology and climatology. Because the scientists are challenging fundamental assumptions of our culture, such as the basis for "progress" and the consequences of "economic growth," many cannot agree with the scientists without losing their identity. This threat to the mental model is simply too great to accept. Hence you encounter two modes of response from those accepting of the prevailing paradigm: (1) the scientific data are not reliable, and (2) faith in technological progress and/or human ingenuity.

So when wondering why so many people just "don't get it," (oil depletion, overshoot etc.) whether they are your local politician or great aunt, realize there is a physiological mechanism that may preclude having a rational discussion on certain topics. The truth can only be pushed so far before rebellion occurs, hence the phrase, "To kill the messenger." Before many folks can learn and incorporate the lessons of ecology, most could use the services of a good shrink. Someone to call them on their bull and get them to face their faulty, contradictory, and destructive thought patterns.

I fear that the world has neither enough shrinks nor enough time to wait for the long process of psychotherapy to work. Furthermore, enshrined institutions embody dangerous mental models within their various charters, goals and mission statements. If anyone happens to have a crisis of confidence, these institutions work to re-assimilate the disenchanted, quietly dismiss them, or destroy their reputations. Of course these are the worst possible responses. As Jared Diamond explains in his book "Collapse," history is replete with societies that failed to question their own assumptions and create new paradigms. Instead of making life possible in a changed environment, they are part of archeology's trash heap.

Those who know about "Peak Oil," monetary debts, climate change, militarism, overpopulation, corporatism, soil loss, aquifer depletion, persistent organic pollutants, deforestation, etc., realize we are at a major historical juncture now. Since we know it is past time to change our culture, the question we have is whether most people will bother to listen and create the necessary transition in a rational, non-violent manner.

For those who find the terms in the previous paragraph somewhat mysterious, try this. Research the "laws of thermodynamics" and compare them to the cultural imperative for "economic growth." See if you can recognize and then resolve the tension between the two in your mind. If you can't resolve the tension, decide which one of these has to go. Look back at the terms in the previous paragraph and ask how they relate to what you've just learned. Caution: afterwards you may need a good shrink.

Editorial Notes: This article has inspired several emails of critical feedback: Carolyn Johnston argues on her blog that 'mass delusion' might be better understood not as a process of neurobiology but of corruption of religious culture by fundamentalism:
Mr. Bradford outlines a model of the brain by which he attempts to provide an explanation why people remain insulated in their beliefs. With all due respect, I have to say we already had a good model explanation for the human fixation on delusion and perversity.It is in the human will, and the science of understanding the ways of the human will used to be called Christianity before modern fundamentalism destroyed it. John Harris does a great job describing the destruction of Christianity from both the Right and the Left in his outstanding book, A Body Without Breath, which should be required reading for anyone attempting to understand the world-historic impenetrability and zealotry of the Bush Administration. The inability to engage in even rudimentary course-correction is a baleful result of the Protestantism of grace-gone-wild: i.e., the divorce of the concept of "salvation'" from that of "works" -- i.e. the practice of moral reason. The isolation and elevation of the concept of "grace" alone has led to a situation in which people no longer reason the better from the worse. They no longer pursue questions of moral reason, for "[they argue] that anyone who strives after moral excellence seeks to put human effort before divine grace."
Full blog entry. After consulting with a neuroscience graduate, P writes:
[Jason] should really be talking about neuropsychology for a start as he does not mention any real anatomy, physiology or biochemistry relating to the brain therefore the term "neurobiology" is being misused... I would much rather you did not publish work like this as it misrepresents the current state of brain studies and any extrapolation from there is going to be faulty. Articles such as these go towards feeding HansoNihilism...”
'HansoNihilism' refers to the pessimistic Peak Oil and genetic determistic inspired philosophies of DieOff.org founder Jay Hanson. MB writes that:
I think Mr. Bradford diagnoses the problem very well, but his solution, "psychotherapy," is absolutely cracked. It's highly ironic to find pseudo-scientific remedies on a site that tries hard to stick with the hard science around Peak Oil. Here are some magnificent critiques of the mass delusion of psychotherapy itself: "Therapy's Delusions," by Ofshe and Watters; "House of Cards," by Robin Dawes; "Manufacturing Victims," by Tanan Dineen; see also the entry under "psychoanalysis" at the Skeptics Dictionary, skepdic.com
There has also been some positive feedback such as this from Michael Schacht:
Nice article. My personal experience after becoming familiar with the concept of Peak Oil, overshoot, etc. was denial, and then extreme depression once the ramifications of the theories began to sink in. Watching the US government behave in exactly the fashion predicted by the oil-nihilists over the past 3 years only made things worse. Impotent Rage is also an emotion I am familiar with, especially in regards to the actions of the elite. In such a situation, I think it is only natural for people to seek a deeper understanding with what is happening. Let's face it, the current capitalist/consumer culture is remarkably shallow and ill-equipped for dealing with anything that can't be solved by a purchase - or - as the last resort, by the force of will. But when all of that came up empty, well, everyone has a different approach, but for me it was to seek guidance from the spiritual traditions - because they deal with the deepest questions and issues of all, and that is what we - as a species - are now dealing with. I used to be resentful at being born into a time of such peril and impending doom, but I'm not anymore. I'm thankful to be witnessing the end of a long and dark illusion, and to the awakening of something new. You and the Energy Bulletin are all part of that Awakening. Thank you for your all your hard work.
Jason has responded to some of the criticism thus:
I am glad my article is getting such a rousing response. Just to let everyone know, I did run this by a PhD in neurobiology and she said that I was pretty much on target, and although scientists would use some terminology differently it is written for nonspecialists. I am also referring to psychotherapy broadly, not as any particular brand, but as tool for getting people to look at their assumptions, motivations and take responsibility for their actions. I ran this by some psychologists as well, and they were comfortable with it. In the future it may be better if I give references for more of my claims. I'd be happy to do so. I am fully sympathetic with those who find no moral compass in our current society. The Fundamentalists are frightening, and the secular society fosters overconsumption. But I also believe that our anatomy, physiology and evolutionary history has shaped our brain structure and function in ways that can be revealed using scientific methods and that these offer important insights. With respect to HansoNihilism, I agree that it is not the best response. However, I believe it is important to validate the feelings of those who are depressed or even in a state of despair. This article is, in part, and attempt to help people understand their own feelings and the lack of empathy of others who don't relate to them. For my own part, I am not fatalistic. If we stand any chance, we must create our own sources of hope. My attempts to do so are being covered by Global Public Media. Regards, Jason
An audio interview with Jason regarding his efforts to build community solutions to Peak Oil in his place of residence Willits, California, is available at Global Public Media.

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