Catnip for our ancient lizard brains…

I’m old.

I am not knocking age because I know what the alternative is – I just know that I am old. I am old, not just because of the number of days I’ve clocked up or the ache in my knees when I climb the stairs or the fact that my eyes now need help if I’m to see 5 car lengths’ away. But because I remember a time when the world seemed like a relatively predictable place.

Predictable. Knowable.

Or maybe work-out-able.

In the sense that the world that I inhabited – the worldview I had internalised – gave me a frame of meaning for all entities (human or otherwise) and all action that I witnessed or was aware of or that I executed myself. It seemed immutable. Stable. Solid. ‘Meaning’ was something tangible – and I took it all for granted.

I’m not sure I can claim to inhabit that type of world any more. Or at least, I cannot claim to have the illusion that I inhabit that type of world.

I don’t want anyone to imagine that I simply accepted this generally ‘stable’ world. Or that I imagined that it was ‘fixed’ in some kind of good or admirable way. I didn’t. No. I was – in that pale anaemic ineffectual way that easily-spooked, everyday earnest people like me are – a ‘reformer’. Fighting the good fight. Banging the party political drum. Because what other way was there to effect change?

So I clearly thought that change was possible. In fact, not only that – I believed that it was desirable.

Now I realise that I just lacked the ability to understand – to work out – that change need not necessarily fit within the frame of meaning or worldview you’ve attached yourself to/been attached to.

Thing is – I remember a 3 channel television system. I remember when ‘the news’ was authoritative reporting of what we all accepted were ‘facts’ (objectively verifiable things that happened in real time and in the world). I remember black was black (and the darkest (non)colour known)- and that white was white. That Labour was (mainly) left wing – and that ‘we’ all seemed in agreement this meant it was pro-State provision of services and State intervention/regulation; pro-distribution of wealth (via a progressive taxation system) and – uncontroversially – supported by the Trade Union movement (from whence it had come). I remember when the Tories were the pro-business ‘right’ – still relatively biggish State – more patrician old money than laissez-faire liberalist. There were political bogey men – but they were still on the known political spectrum. Political discourse was characterised by familiar tropes. There were few women – anywhere – except in the kitchen or bedroom. Feminism was loud and fighting and the sexual ‘revolution’ had apparently all been about sex and having it anywhere anytime and it was all because of the pill.

I remember letters and pen friends. And the rationed landline telephone being something that only rang for emergencies – and a rare ‘after 6pm because it’s cheaper’ call from a boyfriend.

My undergraduate essays were fucking hand-written! The first typed ones were executed on a massive iron-cased 1950s typewriter that I couldn’t lift from my desk.

‘Computing’ was something treated as a specialist – and academically irrelevant – subject. For strange boys who were pale and white and skinny with spots and an inability to speak out loud.

Political scandals invariably involved sex – of the prostitutes or homosexuality or several in a bed variety – though these things only saw the light of day if the establishment had decided you were expendable.

Now.

Now.

Now we have an American President who speaks a mess of infantile gibberish and hate-stoking bile. And whose unpredictability and uncontrollable spite we are all at the mercy of. A man who courts the monsters of our world – whether domestic or global.

We have a rapid-fire virtual world that is catnip for our ancient lizard* brains – and we are drunk on it. Our senses are drunk on fake news. Infowars and Breitbart and all the myriad sites selling apocalyptic thuggery and misogyny and race-hate and homophobia and religious extremism – presenting opinion as fact. Playing our biases. Plucking our strings.

And oh how we sing.


I began this as an exercise in ‘thinking it all out’ – my own wordy (and very Western-centric) way of trying to make sense of what the hell is going on. Of trying to understand the shift at least in Western political culture – which I’ve certainly experienced as a rupture – and of how this fits with what I know of how we are designed.

I thought it was something about us that had changed.

When the truth is: we haven’t changed. Nothing has actually changed.

What is happening now differs only in scale from what was happening in 17th Century Restoration England when the printing press and playwrights were propounding political propaganda that manipulated the masses.

Trumps and Putins and Erdogans and Kim Jong Uns have come and gone before – and taken very many with them. But they have always existed.

The powerful – and power – has always existed to protect and nurture itself. That appears the ineluctable way we tick. How we are wired.

It’s just that our tools have grown more sophisticated.

The stakes are higher, whilst we are still just the same as we ever were – our neurophysiology no more sophisticated than it was 100 or 900 years ago or more and our conflict management skills at the mercy of a biological system that was designed for flight from predators with teeth or fight against resource-competitors.

So, here we stand,  forever condemned to see things as we are. Not as they really are (thanks Nin). Prisoners of our own peculiar psychological and neurophysiological design.

——————————-

I end this with a peculiar sense of what feels like useless academic relief – tempered by fear.

Relief, mainly, that I am not going mad – that there is a certain congruence and comprehensibility or logicality about the world as it is.

Fear – that the machinery we have created could now obliterate us.

For the rest, I retain enough of my old, bumbling, reforming instinct – the same instinct that will propel me to the marches and protests – operating as a distraction but also an articulation of my hope.

Hope that we will not succumb to the whims of mad men.

*I don’t actually believe the shit about the ‘lizard’ brain – but couldn’t find a better metaphor for the fact that we are no different (biologically, neurologically etc) from our ancient ancestors.

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6 thoughts on “Catnip for our ancient lizard brains…

  1. Lizard is charitable really. I find people have a hard time not being dominated by their cockroach brains. I don’t know, though; still naively guessing these tools will ultimately help more than they hurt.

    • We are so incredibly unsophisticated. That’s what strikes me. That we genuinely are a bundle of irrational biases that are influenced heavily by whatever hormone or chemical is coursing through us at any given time.
      There’s fascinating research for example – attempting to explain how we make decisions (it was useful to me in relation to the mediation work I do). Oxytocin is hugely significant – and knowing that makes a difference to mediation success.
      We have created monstrous weapons but are just the same folk who threw spears…
      I

  2. Your last post depressed me but I followed it and, largely, understood it and agreed with it. This one depressed me because of its content but also because I had to stop and think too much. On a minor point I was depressed because if you are old then I am ancient (and I don’t even think of myself as old). After a second reading I came to the conclusion that you actually summed the whole situation up in the sentence “We have created monstrous weapons but are just the same folk who threw spears.” Ironically that statement probably has had validity for centuries – perhaps millenia.

    • Its a strange truth – my written efforts function in largest part as catharsis… I’m usually gravely concerned/depressed going into them – and I usually feel better (until the next time) having written the fear or whatnot down… 😀
      I’m just passing my monkeys onto my readers shoulders…
      Selfishness incarnate 😀

      Re age… There are times when I honestly feel ancient (just now for instance when I listen to the chatter of my young cousin and her first-time young mum pals – and I observe their unspoken dismissal of me or my experience of motherhood as out of date and therefore irrelevant 😀 ) – and other times when I feel brand new… I think feeling brand new is a skill – you’re better at being young than I am – you’ve certainly had more than a huge share of the heavy aged serious stuff of life.

  3. Tsk! Young lady you are far from old.
    Anyway who wishes to be like the young of today? The energy is worth having but not the music, ideas or fashion!

    You are right that nothing has changed, human nature remains the same as always, we are no different from 10,000 years ago, it is just that we think we are better than the ancients but we are unchanged. Only Jesus can change us but most refuse that as it’s to difficult.
    Don’t despair, just make your wee bit of the world a better place in even a small way. I’m sure you do.

    • I do try to make it better Tynecastle. 🙂
      I always liked Paul Eddington’s response when asked what he’d like his epitaph to be:
      Eddington said, “A journalist once asked me what I would like my epitaph to be and I said I think I would like it to be ‘He did very little harm’. And that’s not easy. Most people seem to me to do a great deal of harm. If I could be remembered as having done very little, that would suit me.”

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