Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Übermensch – part 8
In the last post we talked about the dealer in your brain; the guy who doles out all the uppers and downers that can make you feel on top of the world or down in the dumps. The dealer is more or less entirely free from your control - in fact, you dance to his tune and because he’s in charge of how you feel, he’s also in charge of the choices you make. This alone should be enough to shake your confidence in your own Free Will - that core assumption of modern, western, rational, democratic, capitalist culture.
An additional concern we touched upon is that the dealer’s function is not necessarily aligned to the promotion of your individual interests, as you see them. His function, recall, is to reward you for behaviours that were conducive to reproductive success among your genetic ancestors and to punish you for behaviours that weren’t. This arrangement creates difficulties for us.
Firstly, he is not smart. His standard operating procedures have not been updated for aeons. This means that he frequently rewards you for things that are completely at odds with your reproductive success right now; things that may in fact damage your health and shorten your lifespan. The dealer is, perhaps disappointingly, a very simple creature, more like a low-budget production line robot or a simple computer algorithm, than a streetwise, wiley, flesh and blood drug-pusher.
In an earlier post, we met the ‘Sirens’ of Greek Myth. We used them as symbols of the temptations of those unproductive pleasures that kinda make you happy but can wreck your progress towards happiness’s more fulfilling varieties - we’re talking about alcohol, drugs, TV, video games, social media, food, shopping and other addictions. You may have noticed that the dealer rewards you for indulging in these pleasures (that’s why they are pleasurable) but it’s pretty hard to see how they are going to promote the ongoing existence of your genetic lineage. More likely, excessive indulgence will put your life into a depressing rut.
Why does your dealer make these activities enjoyable for you if he is only interested in promoting evolutionary success? If he is such a foundational component of the brain, specially developed to promote the survival of your evolutionary lineage, honed and tuned in his functions over inconceivable stretches of time, how can he be so fallible? The reason is that the dealer (AKA the brain’s reward centre) evolved in response to the demands of a radically different environment than the one we find ourselves in today. The behaviours your dealer encourages with his feel-good hits are not, in many cases, as advantageous for our reproductive success as they were for our pre-civilised ancestors.
Consider the fact that the relatively secure and comfortable conditions humanity has enjoyed in the past few millennia (and especially in recent decades) are utterly at variance with those that prevailed for the rest of human (and pre-human) history. As Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human, ’Everything essential in the development of mankind took place in primeval times, long before the 4,000 years we more or less know about.’ By that he means that our evolved instincts, as characterised by the dealer, which took millions of years to develop and take millions more years to change, are not adapted for the atypical conditions of life that now characterise civilised human existence.
For example, the dealer pushes you to gorge yourself on foods rich in sugar, salt and fat because these nutrients were precious and rare throughout most of human history. Yet today, most of us have easy access to foods with high concentrations of sugar, salt and fat. Though gorging may have been a recipe for optimal health and consequent evolutionary success in the past, for us it is a recipe for obesity, diabetes and shame.
The dealer gets things wrong in other ways too. It can be fooled into supplying the feel-good cocktail for activities that are not at all healthy, now or in the past, and may instead be counterproductive to that end. Things like alcohol and drugs, for example. Alcohol relaxes the activity of the central nervous system, lowering inhibitions and loosening the grip of the dealer’s happiness-withdrawal symptoms that plague you more or less constantly. Other recreational drugs have an opposite effect and can temporarily lift you out of those doldrums by artificially siphoning off some of the feel-good chemical stash. Cocaine, in particular, is so potent that it can make you feel like king of the world when, in fact, everyone at the party thinks you are a total dick.
Take another example, sex. Sexual attraction and sexual activity are intensely pleasurable because they have been so powerfully conducive to reproductive success in the past, but for many modern humans, sex is almost completely detached from reproduction. People have sex for pleasure alone; they masturbate; they have same sex relationships, they have oral and anal sex and none of these activities are going to spawn the next generation of humans. Your dealer powerfully encourages you to yearn for and enjoy sex in order that you may reproduce. He is entirely oblivious to the fact that you are going to spaff your wad into a Kleenex or someone’s rectum or that the guy on top of you has his dick quarantined inside a rubber. Nor is he, simple denizen of the ancient reptilian brain that he is, capable of grasping these facts.
Basically, modern man’s instincts are not fit for purpose, and yet, at the same time, they are so fundamentally at the core of our natures that to deny them is utterly futile and to repress them completely, almost impossible. Perhaps you can now see a hint of the internal tension at the core of the human condition - the reason Nietzsche calls the human ‘the bungled animal’.
The fact is, the dealer in your brain is blind and dumb. You can’t reason with him, talk him around or get him to cooperate. He is an unimaginably old dog and he’s not keen to learn any new tricks. He has no capacity for reflection, no goals, no objectives, no purposes and no plan - just a brute function.
And he is your master.
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