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16 October 2012 @ 09:13 am
Brains. Feh.  
Kate woke up this morning and asked "why don't we ever have dreams in which everything goes right? Mine were full of lost luggage and mutant goats." And I had an insight I'm surprised I never had before.

Your brain did not evolve to make you happy. Brains evolved for the purpose of improving the organism's chances to stay alive long enough to reproduce. This means that your brain's job is worry, fear, and angst -- the emotions that keep you away from stuff that might kill you. The positive emotions that drive you toward helpful stuff (e.g. food and sex) are less immediately vital to survival and therefore easily overridden by the negative ones.

No wonder we're so miserable most of the time.

Ulrikaakirlu on October 16th, 2012 04:25 pm (UTC)
Well, I would say that one of your brain's jobs is to worry, fear, and angst. I'd even go so far as to say that that's one of the ones it evolved earliest, and that's maybe part of why it's such a strong tendency. But once you get past fairly primitive organisms, the brain has evolved to do quite a few jobs. Certainly once you tack on a language center and a big ol' frontal lobe to the older core, it's no longer sensible to talk about your brain's job, singular.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 16th, 2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
I'm talking about the brain's job as an evolutionary artifact. Language and music and art are also functions of the modern brain, for sure, but because they are subsidiary to the organism's basic survival needs they are always going to take a back seat to the more basic (and generally negative) emotions whenever there is a conflict -- or even a perception, by that primitive part of the brain, of a possible conflict.
Ulrikaakirlu on October 16th, 2012 05:17 pm (UTC)
I'm talking about the brain's job as an evolutionary artifact.

As am I. If the question were just one of having a brain versus not having one at all, then sure, the usefulness of fear and aversive response may justify that evolutionary step. (Though interestingly, positive reinforcement is actually a faster, more effective teaching tool than negative reinforcement at pretty much every level of brain development, right on down to planaria -- you wouldn't think that would be true if the main survival benefit of a central nervous system were simply creating impulses of pain avoidance.)

But the human brain didn't stop evolving at the level of planaria or even lizards. If its only job were providing an aversive reaction, it could have, and would have. Sports don't typically propagate and become the dominant type unless the sport in question is useful. But sports with other useful traits did become successively dominant, and I don't think that it's sensible to refer to the chronologically first job (if it is, which it might not be) of a complex system to be its only one.

Language and music and art are also functions of the modern brain, for sure, but because they are subsidiary to the organism's basic survival needs. So is fear. You seem to be equating the fear response with survival needs, and I don't think that works. Fear supports survival needs in some situations, and works against them in others. Fear can, for example, become so acute that it causes heart failure and death. Not a survival need. Fear can also, in humans, be sufficiently acute to override clear thought about best responses in order to survive. Clearly also anti-survival.

On the other hand, when you say they are always going to take a back seat to the more basic (and generally negative) emotions whenever there is a conflict, I think you are simply mistaken. The so-called higher functions can be marshaled to overcome fear, or either suppress it or harness it in support of more energized but better organized survival behavior. In fact, the higher functions can even be marshaled to help people deal with dream fears and turn defuse them. Kids, for instance, can be taught mental routines to subdue dream monsters when they crop up.

So yeah, I'm happy to go with fear as one of the earliest (and crudest) jobs of the brain, and a powerful response, but neither the only job it does to support survival and procreation, nor a trump card over other functions.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 16th, 2012 08:34 pm (UTC)
Well, that's a pretty cogent argument. Curse your nuanced argument, which pokes holes in my pithy yet shallow position!

I guess what I was trying to say was that this is a tendency, but I stated it as an absolute, which is (as usual) not quite the case.
Ulrikaakirlu on October 16th, 2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
Sorry, my Philosophy major background kicked in, and I had to pick the nit. Blame it on paying too much attention to Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein and a bunch of philosophers of language you've never heard of.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 16th, 2012 08:54 pm (UTC)
Philosophers. Dangerous when they go feral...

I assume you have seen this? http://www.mindspring.com/~mfpatton/Tissues.htm
Ulrikaakirlu on October 16th, 2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
Hooboy. That's one feral philosopher, all right. No, I hadn't seen it before, so thanks for the link. Sadly, it turns out I am not a Real Philosopher, since I managed to read it all the way through without dying or going blind. Still, I did LOL.
Billwhl on October 16th, 2012 08:30 pm (UTC)
I wonder if the mechanism that leads us to remember some dreams (last time I checked, which was a long time ago, and not in journal articles, we all have more dreams than we recall) is related to stress.

I mean, the worst dreams, which we name nightmares, have the reputation for waking us up, which probably means that they are more likely to be numbered amongst those we can recall. Less terrible but still stressful dreams, similarly might be closer to the surface.
Billwhl on October 16th, 2012 08:32 pm (UTC)
But hey, what do I know, I'm a computer programmer...
et in Arcadia egobooapostle_of_eris on October 17th, 2012 03:47 am (UTC)
I thought that was because the short-term memory to long-term memory thingy wasn't working, usually, when dreaming.
Mine certainly isn't!
eub on October 16th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
On the other hand, psych folklore is that we mostly (among non-depressed folks) have a persistent cognitive bias towards optimistic expectations.

Which doesn't run directly against your point -- optimism doesn't necessarily make us happy -- but it musses up the situation.
threeoutsidethreeoutside on October 16th, 2012 10:27 pm (UTC)
What is this?! A reasoned and polite and calm disagreement on the internet???

I never heard of such a thing!
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 16th, 2012 10:33 pm (UTC)
Stranger things happen.
billeyler: Brokeback reflection sheepbilleyler on October 16th, 2012 10:48 pm (UTC)
What a vital and insightful small post! Thanks!
scarlettina: Madnessscarlettina on October 17th, 2012 02:06 pm (UTC)
OK, first: Kate's dreaming about mutant goats? Dude! What have you been doing to that poor woman?!


akirlu makes some excellent points. Myself, I find myself considering whether, evolutionarily, sex is helpful in any way except as a survival mechanism. I know that sex in dolphins is actually a social mechanism as well as a survival tool. In humans, as soon as we seem to develop any cognitive ability whatsoever, it becomes not just a good thing, but a bad thing too, becoming a weapon as much as a survival mechanism. As for its immediacy to survival, it's the ultimate survival tool; through it, we all survive when procreation is the outcome.