Lizard Jockeying for Fun and Profit

by ialdabaoth9 min read10th Nov 20174 comments

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NeuroscienceWorld Modeling
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If this works, it will serve as a kind of introduction to a series - or sequence, if you will - on social interaction and strategic incorporation of one's emotions into one's reason. But first let's throw this out there and see what happens, shall we?

Part the zeroth: a caveat.

Let’s face it; with a title like “Lizard Jockeying for Fun and Profit”, this post is promising a wild ride. We’re going to take some appalling metaphoric liberties with modern neuroscience, so bear in mind that we’re dealing in broad, sweeping generalizations throughout most of this paper. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to back up said sweeping generalizations with something like actual fact.

...Deep breath, now. Here goes!

Part the first: The shape of the monster; or: get to know your lizard before you attempt to mount!

Let's face it: humans love dualities and trinities. For some reason, when we look at ourselves, we really like splitting things into twos and threes whenever we can. Probably because they're very small numbers, and if you're going to be breaking things up to make them easier to understand, you don't want to overwhelm people with too many details.

So, when we get to the ancient Hindu sages, the ancient Greek philosophers, the ancient Austrian psychoanalysts, the ancient American developmental psychologists, or the ancient American neurobiologists, you start seeing tripartate distinctions show up: body, soul, mind; appetite, emotion, reason; id, ego, superego; pre-conventional, conventional, post-convventional; lizard-brain, mammal-brain, ape-brain... it's an easy split.

To tantalize with sparse example: while Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development are seen as evolutionary rather than competitive, one can draw parallels between the ‘preconventional phase’ (focused on punishment, rewards and immediate personal gain) and the 'id', the ‘conventional phase’ (focused on interpersonal relationships, esteem, and honor) and the 'ego', and the ‘postconventional phase’ (focused on deep principles and rational discourse) and the 'superego'. If we presume that the different portions of our behavior develop from childhood at different rates, and if we accept (as Kohlberg and Piaget themselves did) that the idea of “stages” is itself more of a useful approximation than a hard-and-fast rule, then a picture begins to emerge of Plato's wild, appetitive beast, slowly brought under control by a sense of conviction, and only finally (if we’re lucky) ruled by a fully-developed reason.

All maps are false, but some are true.

Part the second: the shape of the reins; or: checking your equipment before you get on!

Modern evolutionary neurobiology has some insight to shed on where to draw the lines on our map. The human brain, like all biological systems, is a product of millions of years of evolution in mother nature’s workshop. And mother nature very, very rarely throws anything away. Systems develop, are used, and then new systems develop on top of them to modify them, those new modified systems are used, and so on.

What this means is that a human being, for all our millions of years of development, still has most of the biological ‘hardware’ of a lizard. The spinal column, the cerebellum, the pons, the thalamus, the deep amygdala, the medula oblongata - i.e., the deeper parts of our brain - are designed to deal with lizardy things: food and sex and safety and comfort and raw dominance. Not that lizards are the only beings that do this - heck, worms do this - but for the sake of metaphoric imagery and artistic license, let's think of the lizard as the metaphorical “peak” of this kind of brain.

It is here that modern neurobiology can shed some insight on the situation. Many of these organs - the reticular formation, the cerebellum, the pons, and the medula oblongata - have existed at least for the past 500 million years, and developed in early fish. The amygdala developed somewhat later, growing from sensory nerve clusters designed to process smell and pheremone signals. Together, this cluster has first pick of our nerve signals - any information that passes from the body to the rest of the brain must first pass through these centers.

These lizardy bits did a very, very good job at making lizard-like critters the dominant life forms on the planet for millions of years, so there was no real evolutionary pressure for mother nature to ditch them and start over.

So, there we are - the “lizard-brain”. You could call it the “id” or the “appetite” or the “pre-conventional morality”, but then this paper would have a very silly title for no reason, and we can’t have that. Thus, I don the mask of the poet, and “lizard-brain” it is.

Eventually, as our environment became more complex, opportunities to surpass simple lizardy behaviors opened up. And so, the mammalian brain (and other brains to be sure, but mammals do it oh so well) began to develop organs (the temporal and parietal lobes, the insular cortex, and various other systems) and behaviors (herd instincts, empathy, etc.) to reward pack cooperation, to punish defection, to band together against external threats, to bond to individuals and protect them - in short, to love and be loved and to strive for the esteem of the pack.

Many mammals and birds do this exceptionally well - Plato has Socrates use the image of a lion, while a dear friend suggests the noble meerkat - but this is my paper, and I like monkeys. So, in anticipation of future imagery, we will call this section the “monkey-brain”. You could call it the “ego” or “honor” or “conventional morality”, but that would prevent us from getting to some hilarious mental imagery later. So, poet mask in place, I dub thee “monkey-brain”.

The “monkey brain” physically resides within two structures called the the limbic system and the paleocortex. The limbic system contains the hippocampus (which shares the amygdala with the lizard brain), the limbic lobe, the fornicate gyrus, and the orbitofrontal cortex. These structures, together with the paleocortex, control long-term memory formation, memory-based decision making, and associative learning, and regulate communication between the hindbrain (the “lizard brain”) and the neocortex (the “thinking” brain). They are exceptionally good at associative learning, task learning, and rapid problem-solving, but are still primarily guided by basic drives (pleasure, pain, comfort, social esteem) when deciding what problems to solve.

Now we will descend further into the lurid imagery of metaphor. If I were to cut open your head, we would see a mass of blood and gooey brain tissue - not very useful for evoking the right kind of thought. So instead, let’s imagine the mind from the perspective of our little monkey from the previous paragraph.

Imagine the inside of your head is a giant control room, with a big computer in the back labeled “LIZARD BRAIN - DO NOT OPEN - NO USER SERVICEABLE PARTS INSIDE.” In front of that giant bubbling, liquid-cooled computer is a seat, something like the command chair on a submarine, or Kirk’s chair in the old Star Trek TV show. In front of the seat is a big console full of shiny buttons and levers, and above the console is a screen that shows whatever your eyes are seeing.

In the seat is our monkey.

He has levers in front of him that are labeled “What would your mother think?” and “They’re all going to laugh at you!” and “Chicks dig it!” and “No self-respecting man would do that!”. These are just examples; a less hyper-masculine mind might have a completely different set of labels. But in every single control room, in the very middle of the console, is a big red button labeled “AUTOPILOT - OVERRIDE”.

The monkey’s job is simple. 90% of the time, the Lizard Brain v1.0 computer just steers things around, fulfilling its basic appetitive programing. Sometimes, though, it starts reaching for things that might be bad, or starts running away from things that need to be stood up to. In those moments, the monkey reaches forward and flips a lever, the Lizard Brain thinks (for example) “No self-respecting man would back down from that!”, and the Lizard Brain switches from ‘flight’ mode to ‘fight’ mode.

So you see, the Lizard Brain is doing most of the work; the monkey’s job is just to steer whenever the Lizard Brain 1.0 encounters something beyond its programming. Even when the monkey steers, he’s really just nudging the lizard from one set of lizardy behaviors to another - everything he does relies on the lizard bits working properly in the first place.

Part the third: the lizard-jockey-jockey; or: just when you thought this was easy!

Now, when things get a bit overwhelming, or when the monkey doesn’t have the right lever, then the big red “AUTOPILOT - OVERRIDE” button starts flashing, loud warning klaxons go off all over the control room, and the monkey runs around screeching and waving its arms frantically, looking for a lever to pull. Meanwhile, the lizard is roaring and rampaging and making a general mess of things.

There is a modern term for this process, popularized by Daniel Goldman’s books on “emotional intelligence” - the amygdala hijack:

"Anatomically the emotional system can act independently of the neocortex. Some emotional reactions and emotional responses can be formed without any conscious, cognitive participation...because the shortcut from thalamus to amygdyla completely bypasses the neocortex."

Now, monkey-brain is pretty clever. Lizard-brain only really thinks about “what”: see food, get food, eat food. See girl, get girl, fuck girl. See beer, drink beer, drink more beer, drink more beer, drink even more beer, throw up beer. With monkey-brain in the command seat, “what” can be supplemented with “how” - detailed strategies and plans can be accomplished, and immediate gratification can be delayed for the sake of a better long-term position. But all that assumes that monkey-brain has the right lever to pull, and that lizard-brain is in any mood to pay attention to monkey-brain. Otherwise, we get a rampaging lizard and a screeching, panicked monkey that’s going to have to clean up the mess after it’s all over.

Of course, even with monkey-brain steering and lizard-brain driving, there are still unexplored vistas of behavior that remain inaccessible to us. Luckily, mother nature is always tinkering, and a few hundred thousand years ago hominids started using all that pack behavior to piggy-back a whole new set of decision-making: the prefrontal cortex. While monkey-brain is good at the clever plans and immediate problem-solving that go into “how”, and lizard-brain is exceptionally good at the reward-seeking and pain-avoiding appetites that go into “what”, the prefrontal cortex throws a wild new spice into the mix: “why”.

For reasons not quite understood, but probably to do with mating behavior, complex courtship displays, and more deception than your average monkey could shake a stick at, at some point our ancestors decided that big brains were sexy. And eventually, we began to use those sexy big brains to create language, and semantics, and narrative structures, and stories, and morality. And then we started using those stories to make something called sense of the world. Like it or not, we’re stuck with a sense that “why” matters - and that’s why we all have to read Plato, because at some point your ancestors’ mating practices led to you being born with a big wrinkled growth sticking out of the front of your brain.

[Ed. note: large chunks of this paper were taken from a writing assignment on Plato. I make no apologies.]

But since we’ve already established that gooey bits of bloody brain tissue are disgusting, let’s paint another metaphor. We go back to the “Mecha-Godzilla Command Room”, where our panicked monkey is desperately trying to regain control over the rampaging lizard brain. If we zoom in further, imagine that we see inside the monkey’s head - since this is a metaphorical monkey instead of a real one, we can easily pretend that its head has another tiny control room in it instead of a gooey mass of monkey-brains.

Inside this control room, we imagine, lies a meditating sage. Most of the time, he sits there and watches the monkey do its thing. But sometimes, the monkey lets the lizard do something that the sage doesn’t approve of, and the sage must act. He takes the reins of the monkey, and through the monkey, takes the reins of the lizard. Or sometimes, if the lizard doesn’t have the right controls, he takes the reins of the monkey and has the monkey build a new lever into the lizard’s control room.

All of this, of course, assumes that the monkey lets him. Oftentimes, the monkey likes doing what it wants, and will happily ignore the sage in favor of its own cleverness and self-aggrandizement. When that happens, the sage sighs and watches bemusedly, while the monkey directs the lizard through all sorts of embarrassing monkey behavior - seeking glory and prestige over all the other monkeys with no thought to the greater social fabric.

And suddenly we realize that the monkey has it easy. Every one of those levers that the monkey drives the lizard with got there because someone put it there. Our mom installed the “what would your mother think?” lever before the monkey even learned to pull it. Our dad installed the “no self-respecting man does that!” lever soon after. Our schoolyard friends and foes installed the “they’re all going to laugh at you!” lever, whether we want it there or not. By the time we reach adulthood, the monkey’s little control panel is just full of levers - assuming he remembers to use them, and assuming they’re all wired up right.

The sage, on the other hand, only has one button: “Let’s think about this for a minute.” The sage has to explain to the monkey what it wants to do, which assumes that the monkey even wants to listen. The sage relies on the monkey’s curiosity and cleverness to get the monkey to listen at all, and hopefully, the monkey will agree to install another lever into the lizard.

The neurobiological reasons for this are simple: the neocortex, which is the part of the brain where our reasoning and “higher level” thoughts occur, sits on top of the limbic system. There is no direct connection between it and the “lizard brain”; every communication that the neocortex makes with the rest of our body has to go through that limbic system first, and anything that we sense with our body has to go through the limbic system before the limbic system tells the neocortex about it. Any decision that the neocortex makes has to go through the monkey in order to have an effect on what we actually wind up doing, and any information that the neocortex might want to know about has to be told to it by the limbic system[6].

Part the fourth: free enlightenment or TRIPLE your money back!

So, whenever it seems so difficult to behave like a responsible human being, realize what you’re up against. You aren’t just a single person with a single set of goals, even though your temporal lobe and your corpus collossum do a bang-up job of making it feel that way. You are a tiny, panicked, stressed-out sage, desperately trying to steer a screeching, poo-flinging, uncooperative little shit of a monkey, in the hopes of using that monkey to steal a giant, terrifying, roaring, rampaging monster of a lizard.

Good luck with that!

Fortunately, you can get better at it. The monkey can install more levers, and can get better at learning which levers are likely to quell which kinds of lizard-rampages. The sage can learn how to talk to the monkey in language the monkey understands. The monkey can learn to listen better to the sage. The lizard can be trained to rampage less often, and to snap out of rampages quickly.

But all this takes work. And the biggest obstacle is the illusion that this work is unnecessary - that in reality, we are already a cohesive whole that operates naturally in an efficient harmony, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, all this can only be described in metaphor, because there is no actual tiny monkey inside your brain, with an actual tiny sage inside the monkey’s.

It’s only a model. [Shh!]

Discussing it without doing it is like having a beautiful map of the world in your house, and never leaving your room. It’s like saying, “I don’t need to go to Paris, I have this map!”

The map is not the territory. Advice is not experience. And anyone who claims to be able to explain all this in such a way that their explanation is as good as actually working it out for yourself, has no god-damned clue what they are talking about.

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:29 PM
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I mostly glazed over the neuroscience parts as that is outside my interest, but this paragraph was particularly worth reading:

"The neurobiological reasons for this are simple: the neocortex, which is the part of the brain where our reasoning and “higher level” thoughts occur, sits on top of the limbic system. There is no direct connection between it and the “lizard brain”; every communication that the neocortex makes with the rest of our body has to go through that limbic system first, and anything that we sense with our body has to go through the limbic system before the limbic system tells the neocortex about it. Any decision that the neocortex makes has to go through the monkey in order to have an effect on what we actually wind up doing, and any information that the neocortex might want to know about has to be told to it by the limbic system"

I enjoyed this essay, especially the addition to the standard story whereby the monkey has levers with things like "no real man would back down from this" attached. If your goal was to write an explanation of the standard narrative of Lizard/Monkey/Executive then I quite liked it (unsolicited editorial remarks from me would be that it's a bit lengthy/wordy and more examples of situations and which levers the monkey pulls would be persoanlly appreciated).

I felt though that you were trying to build to a deeper insight at the end, and while I think I agree with the generator of these words:

But all this takes work. And the biggest obstacle is the illusion that this work is unnecessary - that in reality, we are already a cohesive whole that operates naturally in an efficient harmony, when nothing could be further from the truth.

There are many life experiences that could cause you to say them, so I'm not sure what you have in mind - it would be helpful to have examples of times when you/someone you know was like "Yeah, I know the implications of being made of sub-agents" and then made mistakes and realised that they hadn't properly internalised it at all.

But I guess you'll do that with future posts, which I'm excited to read.

Also, this made me chuckle:

[Ed. note: large chunks of this paper were taken from a writing assignment on Plato. I make no apologies.]

Yup. At this stage I'm just describing a thing. I'm going to build up to how to work with it in much more detail, in later episodes.

If this works, it will serve as a kind of introduction to a series

Yeah, this seemed like a good introduction.

It doesn't seem like it's yet gotten to the part where we (generic hypothetical reader "we") know if the sequence was going anywhere new yet. So I'd hope to see one or two posts exploring the further ramifications that I assume you're building towards before evaluating whether this post worked in isolation.

Mild aesthetic note: I felt like it apologized a bit too much for the outlandish metaphors. I think a single apology in the beginning and then just owning it would probably be better.