"Rats" is More than a Mild Expletive

lab rat electrode One of the central premises of my way of talking about and moving toward sustainability-as-flourishing is the idea that human Beings are caring, not needing, creatures. Need suggests that our fundamental motivations for action are inward directed. This model leads pretty directly to the model of Homo economicus, a rational person always acting from a desire to maximize his or her wants or needs, within the constraints of the resources at hand. When this kind of human behaves in a way that appears to be unselfish, classic economists would explain it by saying that altruism is just a part of one’s utilities.

Further examination of this concept suggests that the utilities and the needs they measure are something inherent, that is, they are a part of human nature. We will always have unmet needs and, consequently, will design our individual lives and societal institutions around the quest for more and more. Even if there is no more to be had, we will continue to strive to acquire what satisfies us at the margin. And if our strivings begin to erode the supply of the goods we want, we will continue on our merry way, either unaware of, ignoring, or denying the damages we are doing to whatever system is the source of our largesse. If the powerful forces that design and operate that system act only to fix the damages when they become impossible to ignore, the underlying system will continue to lose its potency for satisfaction, until it collapses at some unknown point in the future.

This is exactly the way we are running the world today. Denial will make sure we continue on the road to collapse. Is this insane? It fits every folk definition I could find. If human nature is really as the economists postulate, there is little to do but watch and wait. If it were not bad enough that the already affluent, modern nations were pushing the world toward some catastrophe, the desire of billions of people to be just like us will add fuel to the fire.

Now think what might be possible if humans were not these intrinsic selfish, greedy creatures. Fromm called this pathological mode of life, “having,” and opposed it to “being.” Having is quite easy to define, but being is more difficult. Having means simply to live life pursuing things to acquire and to engage in acts that give pleasure. Fromm pointed to the Marquis de Sade who attempted to legitimate cruelty as a “good,” because it could give one pleasure and satisfy one’s natural cravings.

Being is more difficult. Again quoting Fromm, “Being refers to experience, and human experience is in principle not describable. (his emphasis)” It is exceedingly dificult to hold this fuzzy sense of being and still convince people that the change Fromm proposed is needed. I believe I have found a way around Fromm’s dilemma. My argument has two roots: one in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and the second in the biology of Humberto Maturana and recent, related discoveries in cognitive science. Heidegger argues that human Being (with a capital B to distinguish it as an ontological concept, explaining the existence of humans as a distinct species) is built upon a structure of care. I have written about this in detail in my book and also from time to time on this blog and will not elaborate in much detail here. In a nutshell, care means to be aware of the world and act to address (take care of) one’s relationships with it. Further, the relationships are acquired through one’s historical experience and are unique to every person. There is no universal “human nature” in the sense above entailed.

I find Heidegger’s philosophical theory of Being compelling. I note that Fromm, a Jewish German emigre, makes no mention of Heidegger, perhaps because of his connection to Nazism. Further support comes from the biology of Maturana, who claims that we act always to conserve our being in the face of perturbations from the world, that is, the result of phenomena that are always impinging upon our senses. Our cognitive system changes with every encounter with the world, accumulating a record of the effective acts and the circumstances in which they transpired. Metaphorically, this could be thought to be a vast database built out of our neuronal structure with some means to find the “right”response depending on the signals being received. Rather than acting out of some intrinsic nature, we act as if we had a machine-like engine in our body—a machine that builds itself out of the continuous experience of being-in-the-world, as Heidegger speaks of it. For those interested in pursuing this idea further, I recommend reading “The Tree of Knowledge,” by Maturana and Varela.

Now comes the newest part of the story. Neuroscience is finding more and more evidence that our cognitive system is more like the memory of a computer than the CPU. Our actions come out of retrieving stored, historical content coherent with the immediate context of our situation, and acting on it. The rational, algorithmic model of Home economicus lacks the explanatory power of this alternate way of explaining action.

Reading an article about the way the unbelievable amounts of data collected about everyone in the course of shopping and surfing is used to predict your habits, I discovered this fascinating story about how we Be. The theory behind the ability of marketer snoopers is that humans act through habits, and, thus, if they can discover your own idiosyncratic patterns, they can intervene at just the right time to entice you to acquire whatever they want to sell to you. In this case the game was to discover pregnant women early enough in their pregnancy to entice them away from their routines. Pregnancy, these hidden persuaders have found, is a condition where habits are amenable to change. If you think this is just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, the article tells the story of a case where Target started sending ads about diapers and other baby-related goods to a woman who the data identified as being pregnant. Her outraged father, who said this could not be true, confronted the store manager who apologized. A few days later the father called back and apologized himself because it turned out the statistics did not lie.

Why is this possible? Neuroscientific research has found that humans act habitually, using routines we have acquired and embodied during our lifetimes. Here are a few key results quoted in the Times article:

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.

This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.

The explanation is quite straight-forward. Something grabs our attention; we identify it, reach into our stored bag of tricks, pick out the appropriate one, do the job, and breath a sigh of relief when it has been completed. Heidegger, without the benefit of probes into rats’ brains, called these unconscious routines “ready-to-hand,” and argued that we act transparently in these cases, that is unconsciously without reflection. This is the essence of care. We act to maintain our “successful” relationships with the world. The world is everything that impinges upon our sensory organs and is chunked or identified as familiar. Much of what is contained in the incoming signals is ignored because the chunking process does not recognize it. Here’s a more technical description taken from the Times article:

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.

Why is this so important for sustainability? It should be obvious. If hyper-consumption is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned. If failure to care for the world of humans and non-humans is a learned habit, it can be changed. The model of an intrinsic greedy human nature or essence implies that we are doomed to consume as much as we can, and will eventually destroy the planet that serves as our life support system. It also implies that we act mostly to take care of ourselves, so that the narcissistic character of life in the US today is no surprise. But for any habit (addiction?), especially one that we are not even aware is a habit, change is always problematic. As long as the culture continuously creates and supports the habits, change is virtually impossible. Our bodies will continue to respond to the cues implicit and explicit in daily life: ads everywhere without a break, fast-moving technologies, money as the most meaningful object of life, short-term thinking, and on and on.

Hard as it is to change culture, it must happen if our habits are to represent care, rather than need. Or, as Fromm might say, shifting from having to Being. Given the increasing amount of data that supports this model of human behavior, it is becoming just as hard to ignore its consequences as it is to deny the phenomenon of global climate change. But beware, it is not only the plutocrats that will fight to keep the status quo, it will be all cultural institutions that now have been constructed on the foundation of the old, obsolescing notions of human nature and behavior. That’s virtually every one.

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2 Comments

David M. Carter said:

Brilliant piece, John! I really like this one.

If I could respond to a couple of points you made. The Maturana/neuroscientific, phenomenological model you describe seems to potentially disprove the being/having dichotomy elaborated by Fromm. Fromm's perspective, to me, implies some sort of human nature that is objectively preferred (being) over another. If it's true that human nature is an illusion, and I suspect that this is the case, then perhaps what Fromm is getting at is that we need to change the environment in which we operate from one dominated by greed to one dominated by caring. Through changing the stimuli we encounter, our essential wiring changes from seeking and owning to being and caring.

The challenge, therefore, becomes how do we change our cultural environment to encourage the development of caring habits over having habits. This further implies that change does not happen as much individually but more as a member of a social group. The obvious conclusion is that we need some sort of cultural "coup". We need to figure out a way to overthrow global capitalism so that the cultural environment in which we find ourselves nourishes caring over having.

Of course, this is possible. Modern culture likes to think of itself as the pinnacle of human development. Yet, human societies have flourished (in some cases) for millenia, living in sustainable ways. As we develop and elaborate possible visions of a sustainable future, we need to figure out how to borrow ways of living from the past while, at the same time, looking to a future obscured by technological advances.

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Yes, we do need a cultural coup or a new story or a paradigm shift or whatever is a different structure on which we act out everyday life. I took a gentler approach in my book arguing for a "subversive strategy" but increasingly believe stronger action is necessary to move us toward a tipping point.

I do not think Fromm based his dichotomy on the presence of a human nature. His pair of modes are ontological, defining what kind of creatures we are according to how we act in the world. The third part of his book, TO HAVE OR TO BE, is devoted to "The New Man and the New Society." He talks of the interweaving of the social character vis a vis the social structure, a kind of Marxian idea, but with a psychoanalyst's perspective. It is clear that he believes the social behavior is shaped by the forces of the society, not as a result of some innate nature. he rails against "Industrial Religion," his words for the hyper-consumerist world already dominant in 1976.