By Robert A. Vella
Is Modern Civilization too complex for the Human Brain?
Yes, says psychiatrist Peter Whybrow in a C-SPAN discussion of his provocative book titled The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience & the Life Well Lived. Whybrow asserts that human brains are not wired for modern society in which long-term thinking is crucial for survival. His examination of this existential incongruity explores the physiology and biologic evolution of human cognition which progress much slower than does human culture (i.e. technology). He cites that, in his lifetime, population has doubled while economic output has increased eightfold; yet, humankind’s myriad destructive scourges persist. Lifestyles based on excessive consumption have triggered gross inequalities, conflict, and health crises such as obesity.
Whybrow posits that because the advent of modern civilization is so recent (agrarian societies began about 10,000 years ago, but Homo sapiens are 200,000-300,000 years old), our hunter-gatherer brains have lagged behind. Back then, humans evolved gluttonous behavior because they didn’t know when their next meal might occur. These kinds of lingering habits are evident today, Whybrow muses, when diet-conscious individuals are tempted by a slice of rich cheesecake.
Whybrow points to The Enlightment period as charting a progressive course through this incongruity between human nature and complex civilization. In response to Thomas Hobbes’ observation of a brutal human condition which requires either king or god to control, Whybrow illuminates the philosophy of Adam Smith who envisioned a society spurred by self-interest while being moderated by a social contract between peoples. In other words, greed is the engine that drives economic development while social obligations apply the necessary brakes.
However, the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels as an energy source during the Industrial Revolution, as well as globalization and internet communication in the Information Age, have broken this moderating social contract. Together, they unleashed the ravages of unbridled capitalism and separated people from the social bonds that held societies together to which he opined:
“We have lost some of our best attributes in the last few years.”
Still, Whybrow remains optimistic. He believes that the Age of Reason can be reinvented. Let’s hope he is correct.
Watch this fascinating 90 minute C-SPAN BookTV video: Book Discussion on The Well-Tuned Brain
Peter Whybrow talked about his book The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived , in which he argues that human brains are not wired for modern society, in which long-term thinking is crucial for survival. He says that humans’ “ancient brain” focuses on short-term survival and responds well to our economic system, which rewards short-term gains, but is not well-suited to deal with major long-term problems like global warming.