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The limbic society

18 July 2012

Human beings are a strange lot. Even though we possess the capability of advanced logical reasoning, most of us still rely on the limbic system to guide us through our day-to-day business. Our emotions run high and dominate our actions and reactions. It’s a real paradox: after millions of years of evolution and adaptation we now have the most advanced analytical tool on the planet and what do we do with it? We keep it switched off for the majority of our lifetime*. What on earth are we thinking? (No pun intended)

The pain of self-awareness

Yes, that’s us. Apart from the ‘Speak no evil’ one. We don’t have any problems doing that. None at all.

Perhaps the reluctance to use our powerful brains comes from a fear of self-analysis. Imagine focusing on all the mistakes and blunders you’ve made in your lifetime. It would be like being on a constant trial; always going over every single action, looking at them from every possible angle, always analysing and re-analysing. Surely it’d be better to keep the brain safely switched off?

Also, what horrors might we not discover if we were to point our analytical tools at ourselves? You might find out things about yourself you’d rather not know. And once you learnt something, you can’t really un-learn it. Knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Lazy bird catch no worm

On the other hand, perhaps we don’t use most of our faculties because we’re frugal? Running our big brains on full power is costly, and we might want to save that energy for when we really need it.

Of course, in our modern society, finding enough food is hardly an issue and we could use as much brain power as we like without risking starving to death. But old habits die hard, and we might even be genetically programmed to be careful with using our minds to full effect, something I’ve touched upon before in the post The economy of racism.

Emotional robots

“Yes! We’re all unique thinking individuals! So please: Tell us what to think!”

Whatever the reason for us not using our prefrontal cortex, the end result is that we turn into preconditioned robots, where any external or internal stimuli results in a programmed emotional response. Push a button – get a reaction. The phrase ‘knee-jerk’ comes readily to mind.

So when we group us humans together in vast societies, what we end up with is a featureless mass of non-thinking, prejudiced and overly emotional primates. A mob that reacts instinctively to any situation, without knowing (or having any interesting in finding out) why they react as they do. Honestly, the only reason we don’t have angry villagers constantly roaming the streets with torches and clubs is the shackle of social convention; luckily, forming mobs is frowned upon.

Four levels of ignorance

Being emotional puppets have other consequences as well. By not actually using our brains, we just sail through life without paying much attention and learning even less.

“When is he gonna stop talking? These essential instructions for my survival are sooo boring!”

If you present a text of vital information to a group human beings, they won’t read it. If you’re lucky, they might scan it through quickly and disinterestedly. Frustrated by the lack of communication, you might read the text out loud or explain it verbally, in order to try to get them to absorb the information. But humans don’t listen. Or if they do, they don’t really listen to what you’re actually saying, but rather what they think you should be saying. And if you somehow managed to get the message across, chances are they won’t understand it. A life in a state of an emotional zombie have left them void of any intellectual capacities. Finally, if, against all odds, you happen to reach a few who do actually understand you, they probably won’t care. Unless it affects them personally and directly, they will switch off and think about what to have for lunch instead.

I like to call it humanity’s four levels of ignorance: people don’t read, people don’t listen, people don’t think and people don’t care. It might sound depressive, but I’ve found it very useful to keep in mind when building web sites; don’t ever expect people to pay any kind of attention.

The future of humanity

But isn’t things getting better? Aren’t we more educated than ever before? Don’t we have all the information we need at our fingertips?

Well.. We are probably more educated than ever before, and we do have almost limitless information easily accessible. But we still don’t think. What’s the point of learning stuff if we never actually use it for anything? Or watching the news or reading articles if we don’t think about what we learn? We still only react emotionally, even though we might be using a fancier vocabulary than 200 years ago. Intellectual debates quickly degrade into emotional arguments and then into personal attacks. It’s like watching a group of chimpanzees working themselves into a frenzy.

“What do you mean ‘Road tolls will have to be raised by 0.5%’? That’s completely unacceptable!”

And all this doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy. If the general populus don’t think for themselves and only reacts emotionally, it can be easily manipulated into voting for politicians who know how to play them. Enter the fringe parties, populists and extremists. When things get bad you can always count on them to muddy the political waters and confuse the voters.This means that ‘serious’ political parties that might want to make long-term changes for the better of society will find themselves forced to appeal to the least common denominator just to be able to stay in power. Which effectively prohibits any changes that won’t have immediate benefits for the majority of the population.


To summarise: we all carry around the most advanced type of brain on the planet. It’s like the Rolls Royce of brains, the best of the very best. So wouldn’t it be a shame to go through life without using it even a little? Go on – think! You’re worth it.


* Present company excluded obviously. You, gentle reader of my blog, show all the signs of being a creature of high intellect and advanced analytic thinking. Well done you!

24 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 July 2012 19:40

    Great post, Andreas! Really makes me think about the way I think. Have you read any of Steven Pinker’s work? I think it was The Blank Slate that really made me question the way I thought about my decisions and biases — we always want to believe we can improve ourselves and become wiser; but I think that’s a daily, hard slog, not a moment of revelation.


    • 19 July 2012 03:33

      Thanks David!

      No, I haven’t read anything of his; sounds interesting though. And I agree: it’s a constant struggle. It’s so easy just to react the same way as always, without thinking of why.


  2. 18 July 2012 19:54

    This is perfect!! I was just heading over here so you could tell me what to think. Wait… what was it you told me to think again? Dammit. I wasn’t listening. This always happens.

    Well… off to pick up my torches and clubs. See you guys later.


    • 19 July 2012 04:34

      I was gonna tell you to be an indivi.. Oh, never mind. There might be a hardware store sale somewhere. Pick up your reasonably priced pitchforks there. Go.


  3. 18 July 2012 20:42

    Well thought out as always. What puts this post into a special place is the pic from Life Of Brian. One of my favorite movies. The Pythons at their best.


    • 19 July 2012 03:39


      Yes, I really like that film too. (Although it tend to make me a little depressed..) I love the scene where Brian is telling everyone that they should think for themselves, that they’re all individual and they all reply in trance-like chorus: “We’re all individual!” And then you hear a single voice saying: “I’m not.” That always crack me up!


  4. 19 July 2012 02:16

    Maybe the problem is I think TOO much. Maybe I’m stealing all the thinking. I should share some of that with the non-thinkers. They can have some back. It’s stopping me from sleeping and also from functioning at a normal human level.

    Now I feel terrible. I’ve been hogging all the thoughts. Sorry, world.


    • 19 July 2012 04:29

      If only that was true. But I fear that thinking is like love – the more it’s used, the more it multiplies. Which doesn’t make things look particularly good – either for love or independent thinking.

      And yes, those the never-stopping thoughts? That relentless analysis? It’s just exhausting. And it sure doesn’t make one’s life much easier.

      Perhaps that’s the real reason: we’re happier if we don’t think? And people might prefer to be happy rather than thinking. I think I envy them..


      • 19 July 2012 12:52

        Son of a…I just wrote an AWESOME comment, and WordPress ate it. Dammit.

        I’ve often wondered if people that don’t think much are happier. I don’t want to say stupider people – that’s mean – but less analytical people, maybe? Some of the happiest people I know are the less-deep ones. And some of the most miserable people I know are the most intellectual.

        I think those of us that think too much can see the endgame of things, and it’s depressing, and therefore we are sad. However, I was lucky enough to get a healthy dose of whimsy and humor with my big old analytical brain, and those keep me from total depression. I also have the best friends in the world, and they keep me smiling. I’m a lucky one in those regards.


        • 19 July 2012 15:56

          Aw, sorry about your comment. I hate when that happens.

          Yes, I agree: analysing people are rarely happy. But luckily I think there is a correlation between the highly analytic mind and a well developed sense of humour. If I have to guess, I’d say that the same brain functions are probably used for both.


          • Tamashii permalink
            19 July 2015 06:59

            I would think that humor and intellectuality are connected. The more of a thinker you are, the more you analyze a situation, the more you know when it’s okay to joke, and what kind of joke it’s okay to tell. also, thank goodness I’m not the only one that uses a word program to make my comments!


            • 19 July 2015 08:21

              Yes, that’s most likely the case: analysis and thinking powers a sense of humour. Then it’s up to the rest of one’s personality and emotional maturity to filter that humour before it’s let out. Intellectual humour can be incredibly cruel otherwise.


  5. 19 July 2012 04:20

    Uh, I was going to say what Amy said. I often find myself envious of people who don’t think. Like my sister-in-law. She seems to get an awful lot done and sleeps well to boot. She doesn’t have a self-analytical bone in her body. It’s like she doesn’t even make decisions. She just acts. I want to be like that for a while. I also want to sleep.


    • 19 July 2012 05:52

      Oh, I just had a thought: it might be that there are two equally valid strategies – one where you use your brain to the max, always thinking and analysing; never happy. And one where you don’t use it much at all, but instead you get things done. I can see both personality types being quite useful to society.

      Sorry about the sleep though. That sucks.


  6. 21 July 2012 08:59

    I pose this problem to my students from time to time: Prove to me that human beings ought to continue living. Use only facts and logic to support your conclusion. It can’t be done. We certainly have an emotional desire to continue. We feel this desire even toward future generations that we won’t be alive to know.

    I agree that far too many avoid thinking, but those same people often lack any depth of feeling as well. Caring about something is an emotional response. Perhaps it’s better to say that the goal is an integration and development of our whole mental apparatus.


    • 21 July 2012 13:21

      Hi Greg, thanks for your comment!

      You’ve raised an interesting point. There are of course different levels of depth when it comes to emotional responses. And when I call our society a limbic one, I refer to our more basic emotions like those of a small child: anger, loneliness, vengefulness etc. As humans we have to be taught to behave rationally and to act with compassion; it’s not our natural state.

      So yes, I agree. In addition to learning to think, we could well do with learning to care.


  7. 23 July 2012 06:42

    Good post. The Pareto principle might apply here: 20% of the people do 80% of the thinking.

    One slight revision I would suggest. The end of the next-to-last paragraph should read: “Which effectively prohibits any changes that the unthinking majority can’t be made to believe will have immediate benefits for them (assuming the elections are honest).”


    • 23 July 2012 18:43

      Yes, but I think there might be a point to that 80/20 ratio: we can’t all be thinkers or nothing would ever get done. So I would argue that a spread of ‘intellectual talent’ is an evolutionary advantage, not just for the group but for the individuals as well. A society would benefit from a few ‘non-productive’ thinkers, but wouldn’t be able to carry a high percentage of them. Likewise, from an individual point of view, there are two strategies: thinkers and doers; either approach is valid if you want to succeed within the tribe. The 80/20 ratio might therefore be evolutionary determined as the most efficient make-up of a group of humans.


      • 29 July 2012 22:22

        What about the clergy in days gone by? They were the intellectual leaders of that time.


        • 30 July 2012 05:42

          Yes. They were just about the only intellectuals in those days. I suppose a percentage of them would have been thinking individuals as well.


  8. 30 October 2012 12:54

    Thank you for giving me this link, it expresses so much of what I feel and what worries me. I was interested to see your use of the word *zombie*, I used it myself this morning. You are better than me at putting these things into words so thank you for sorting out my thoughts for me.


    • 30 October 2012 13:01

      Thank you, glad you liked it! It’s a bit of a rant-post, but I feel strongly on the subject.

      Yes, zombies abound these days. And not just because of Halloween.



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