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Exploring the concept of survival circuitry

*This post carries a thinking through writing warning*

To explore the survival circuit concept we are better to start from the inside out, or bottom up, literally. To make full sense of that you will have to read the full link to Professor Joseph LeDoux’s article ‘Hubris and The Tree of Life’, in which he informs us that inverterbrates tend to develop, embryologically, mouth first and that verterbrates (including those reading this) develop anus first.

The next extract from the article is the bit that relates to yesterday’s reblogged post concerning LeDoux’s proposed term of ‘survival circuits’ from the Why We Reason blog. LeDoux suggested in an essay last month that rather than try to map our emotional lives onto animals, we map the neurological responses we share with animals. Seems sensible to me.

Body parts change during evolution to help organisms cope with their environment in new ways. There are certain things that have to be accomplished in order to survive. For example, you have to be able to meet nutritional demands, keep your fluids up to date, and defend against danger. And for your species to survive you have to reproduce. This list probably applies to all organisms, and, to some extent, even to simple single cell creatures like bacteria.

We need to eat, drink, have an innate survival response and reproduce to meet the basic requirements of our animal selves. That’s it.

For a while now I have wondered if, rather than dividing emotions into positive and negatives, whilst mapping five (or more) ‘universal emotions’, there is only one basic innate default setting – fear of these survival needs not being met, or the flipside, which is the compulsion to meet them when they are offered. You are either switched on in terms of survival, or your immediate needs are met and you are off.

Everything else we might attribute to the human experience and label as a mood, an emotion, or a feeling is a cognitive, sociological and cultural construction that starts with a threat to survival or the opportunity to ensure survival.

Of course we know it is far more complicated as a subjective experience because our lives have evolved way beyond only getting the needs of the organism met, but it seems perfectly reasonable that on some level, every day, we are subject to the table thumping requirements of our basic organismic self.

This appears, at first glance to reinforce the annoying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but actually it does the opposite and means I can continue to deconstruct that wrong-minded theory later.

However I still need some lunch.

Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt, 1909

A questioning nature

Albert Einstein said:The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

The reason I mention this is because I am practically afflicted with a questioning nature, and in our urge for duality in life, where there are questions we then want a matching answer. But that’s the thing; questions more often than not lead onto more questions and not answers.

So this week I have (in my own way) questioned Freud’s theory of the id, ego and superego and I have revisited, with questions, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And I have come up with doubts, agreements, and ultimately more questions. Certainly if I were to hold a dinner party for dead people next week I’d have that triumvirate seated down one of the long sides of the dinner table.

Freud seems to me to have done a creditable job of identifying certain human behaviour and feelings which can now be linked to distinct parts of the human brain. Neuroscientists might agree today that the function of the limbic system (the oldest part of the brain, wired for survival and getting its impulses met) sounds like Freud’s id. And they might allow that the pre-frontal cortex, the part to do with ‘higher’ functions such as reason and logic and planning, sounds rather like Freud’s ego. So through his observations, it can be argued that Freud was also in step with future science fact, and I suspect that because the theories resonated they gained purchase in the popular psyche, even today. My superego is still thinking about contemplating its own existence however…

Maslow’s hierarchy again resonates because it makes sense: if a person is being attacked with a knife their limbic system will be busy dealing with that, and they are hardly going to be thinking about some other higher purpose. One of my questions about the hierarchy model is about the people studied to gain the data: the top 1% of US college students. Maslow stated that “the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.” That’s a shame – if he had studied Indian sadhus he might have ended up with a circular model instead. I also believe we live, and think, in an interconnected way, and not just in stages. I frequently come into contact with people who would say their basic needs are not entirely met, yet are able to think and act in ways that suggest they are not trapped in the bottom couple of layers of Maslow’s triangle. I guess those people just don’t fit into the top 1% – but hey that’s 99% of us isn’t it?

More interesting, and less obvious, was Maslow’s study of people he considered to be self-actualizers (but that’s another blog post).

And that’s about it for now; no answers, only questions. Although I did experience one answer to a question yesterday evening when I collected the kids from a school disco. When I arrived, the hall was thick with heat, the kids by now standing around. Well that’s their energy, I thought, just hanging around in that heat in the hall. But where has it come from? Because as we know (because the blog likes to revisit it often) a universal law of energy is that it cannot be destroyed. So I stood in the thick fug of dissipating heat and looked for my children and thought to myself, this energy has come from the food they have eaten – that’s obvious. But then came the next question: where will this energy go?

And I don’t know the answer to that question; if I did I would tell you… But I do know that you could probably run the Blackpool Illuminations for a week if you could capture the energy generated by a few school discos and kids drinking quantities of sugary drinks.

A non-hierarchical Big Wheel

A holding page

Ive got a couple of theories circling the blog and when I have got some time later I will give them permission to land.

They arent mine by the way; they are theories that are based on limited scientific evidence, have few variables and yet have taken hold of the popular consciousness without so much as a by-your-leave.

The theorists are Freud and Maslow and for now I will only say this: Freud developed his ideas by mainly studying upper class Austrian ladies in the early 1900s; Maslow studied the top 1% of American college students 60 years ago – yet both theories have been enthusiastically extrapolated out to throw a blanket over us all.

I am no psychologist, but I cant help wondering what the superego would look like out of the drawing room and on the racecourse.