So what is so wrong with going down “rabbit holes” anyway? Do rabbits say, “I don’t want to go down that human hole!”? If they were aware that they were rabbits and could speak I bet they would. Is there wisdom in species specific being? If so could it have anything to do with mental health? What would the world look like if brains and social systems were organized around humanity? Could the Self be a resource to bring this about?
When we lose our mental resources we have more of a rabbit’s mind. Our emotions shout at us and our instincts push and pull us around. Rabbits would become overwhelmed if they suddenly had ideas about how the world worked and knew what their role was! We both would find it difficult to be as we were, or to be at all.
Our ability to stay curious, open, accepting, and loving (COAL: See Dr. Daniel Siegel’s new book for more) when stressed is one way to think about what it means to be human. It’s even more human to intentionally live by principles that keep us in such a state more often than not, and help others do the same.
If you’ve tried being human in this way for any length of time you’ll find its stressful. We are inclined to act less than human without a lot of ongoing effort. I have an acronym I like to use to help us be aware of what it’s like to lose our humanity when stressed. It’s SCRU (Single minded, Close minded, Rejecting, and Unkind). Like when we say, “Scru you!” or “Scru this!” When emotions shout and instincts push and pull we lose the core of our self. The part of us that identifies with the present moment (see “Stuck in the Middle With Me”).
To stay human we need to see the possibility to connect when stressed. Things like intentions, response flexibility, mental time travel, and theory of mind are our resources. You might say they help us generate creative ideas about how to collaborate. We can find ways to meet our needs while also supporting others to meet theirs. It’s a tall order, taking care of all that our biology requires of us and staying connected to others (see “Dream Weaver”). Our past experiences of this contribute to the ideas that become concepts that, know it or not, guide our behavior. These concepts get passed down through the generations. Some help. Some make things worse.
Adapted from Murphy & Brown (2007, pp. 109)
While we are endowed with innate biological resources that bend our behavior toward a COAL way of being, concepts about ourselves and others can support or thwart getting stuck living in a SCRU state of mind. It takes some mental gymnastics to see what I mean. So, try your best to suspend your assumptions about philosophy, religion, and mental health to go down a “human hole” with me, as rabbits!
Let’s pretend we are rabbits for a moment. So we like carrots, having lots of sex, and we hate farmers. We don’t know this about ourselves but we feel every ounce of excitement, lust, fear, and rage, that goes with these experiences. We spend our time seeking out sources of carrots, sexual partners, and escape roots from farmer McGregor’s deadly aim. McGregor knows we like carrots best. He has planted some of them under the window of the shed where he sits and waiting for us to wander into his crosshairs. He chews on some hay with his 22 gauge rifle and waits for us to pop up ready to feast. We zip around without much self awareness, let alone other awareness, conscious, feeling, sensing creatures. We remember where the carrots were last time and can identify a rabbit from a farmer. We have instincts supported by an emotional and memory systems, but no concepts to mentally organize all of this input. We are an easy target for Farmer McGregor. Why?
Up we climb, eager to get at the carrots, and “wham!”. Not a good day on the farm for being a rabbit. Now the story obviously ends here for any individual one of us rabbits. That’s it. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, as the chart above shows, as a species we did pretty well millenia after millenia and then McGregor got something we didn’t. On top of genes, instincts, innate emotions, and memory, he has a mind’s eye full of symbols for forming ideas. Symbols that would help organize inputs from instincts, emotions, and memory. Allowing what he did to be informed by experience. Language emerged and allowed his kind to communicate their wisdom.
What we can’t see from a snapshot of this scene is the experience McGregor is working on. We can’t see the books he read that his ancestors left. We can’t see the hours he spent, in safety contemplating the nature of farming, his role in it, and the role of us rabbits. We also can’t see the absence of hours we didn’t spend thinking about these things. We never feel safe enough and even if we did we don’t have the brain hardware to form ideas and concepts about ourselves and the world.
We can’t see the development of the human brain over the millennia. That’s where a lot of hard working scientists have helped us out. It’s not the gun that makes McGregor so sophisticated. It’s actually the millennia his kind have spent feeling SAFE. In other words the human brain has basked in a climate of feeling relatively safe compared to other organisms. This is the climate that gave rise to a mind’s eye capable to protecting it’s progeny by thinking. The experience of identifying safety over danger . allowed humans to relax and think. What we see in other animals is their tendency to be prone to sensing danger more often than safety. The physical structure of their brains reflect what we can infer is a significant lack of mental life compared to us. McGregor may choses to pick us off rather than set out a “have a heart trap” perhaps because his mental life looks more like SCRU than COAL, but let’s not judge him too quickly.
Whitetail deer and wild turkeys are a great example of organisms whose behavior is primarily determined by their instincts, emotions, various forms of memory, and social systems to support living. We can infer that they have a mental life as they unknowingly establish a partnership for keeping an eye out for predators. The deer and turkey become aware that they are safer in the presence of the other, but they don’t know they have ideas about this to communicate about and pass down on purpose.
What is instinct and emotion without awareness derived from symbol making? The human brain without all of the sophisticated features of the cerebral cortex. The “triune brain” (Paul MacLean) is a way to understand 3 major regions of the human brain from an evolutionary perspective. It’s a simple way to imagine the changes brains have gone through as life forms have advanced over the millennia. The diagram below depicts the triune brain and the relationship between information processing, awareness, and movement in each region.
The green region represents the brain stem or “reptilian brain”. It is the first responder, described best as the “instinctual brain”. When we consciously become aware of it’s activity it’s like a bomb going off. Instinctual circuits arouse us, get us fired up. They have an either or, all or nothing type of quality. This type of processing lends itself to less consideration of outputs in response to inputs. We perceive, we feel, we act.
I give it a figurative “2” to represent the choices available to us were we to merely go along with our instinctual awareness. Approach or avoid. No filtering, no interpretation. When we are overwhelmed with instinctual responses we are easy prey for opportunists like ole Farmer McGregor! Our representation of Self and World is unidimensional and organized around doing without being. We not only “objectify” others but we behave as an object. Just things, the body and world become. Things are easy to manipulate. Now in defense of instincts, in the face of mortal peril, objectification has its place. Just get this thing away from that thing, now!
The limbic system came along next as mammals developed the ability to communicate socially. You might think of this region as the “emotional brain”. Emotions catch our attention. This supports social communication. To emote is to give a shout out about what is happening to us and others in the world. We even shout out to ourselves through through feedback loops that tell us how we are feeling. Emotions amplify how much of me and you is in the mix. We have moved further away from thingness and closer to being.
Emotions and affects are urgent and bent toward movement, hence, e-motion. The number ‘9+’ in the diagram is figuratively expressing the increase in number of possible states of me and the world that affect brings our attention to. The 9 represents the evolutionary endowment of 9 distinct innate affects , which when activated “tell us something” about what is likely happening without further present moment awareness required. Gratis Geneticus! The plus sign alludes to the possibility that focusing our intention to particular stimuli (as affects advise) will elicit additional information relevant to our present moment experience.
Both instinct and affect are bent toward outputs rather than inputs. Behaving without thinking, let alone acting. Again, a good system when danger is ever present, sometimes. And so that is the lot for us rabbits. If we want to act rather than behave, we need to not only include more Self but more of our history, more of our Historical Selves. That is, an action vs a behavior is bent toward being more informed by who we are, have been, and want to be.
We are getting closer to fine, but not all the way there yet. Where are we? With our sophisticated emotional brain on board we emerge from the hole. Driven by the instinctual “boom” of smelling those captivating carrots, we find we are in mortal peril as we hear a “click” of McGregor cocking his rifle. Fear shouts out to us to put on the brakes. Heart pounding, we quickly scan for danger and move about with more awareness. Like a reptile we might freeze and become an easy target. However, we are more aware of the predicament our body is in. What we have achieved is a mental state that is more informed and therefore, it has more flexibility regarding what to do. Our accomplishment is significant. However, our tendency is to force things and that’s exactly what McGregor is counting on. He would like us to operate mechanically and push and pull our way around. What would really catch him off guard would be if we took a deep breath, leaned on one leg while chewing on a carrot and said, “Hey, let me tell you why it is not in your best interest to pull that trigger.”
Let’s imagine I survived that close call with McGregor and came away with a minor injury. We are safely hanging out back in the nest talking about my near fatal run to get some food. We review the risks in the garden and decide that while we deserve to grow and prosper, we are indeed stealing someone’s crops. Clearly some bombs are going off for McGregor that he is not interested in talking about. We muse about the immorality of some organisms inheriting property and titles that allow them thrive while others are born without choice into social systems that lack such an advantage. We argue about whether or not this unfair existential situation justifies theft or ought to inspire hard work at rising above the station we find ourselves in.
Panning back as a fly on the wall I notice the copies of “Animal Farm”, “The Wealth of Nations”, “The Communist Manifesto”, and “Mein Kampf” on the bookshelf. I shudder to think of how far we have come and yet how much we struggle to figure out a more just way of responding to our instincts and emotions. It feels good to share the turnips my hedgehog neighbors gave me the other day with all of you as I stoke the fire and smile at such a smart, caring, and hopeful bunch. Maybe the hedgehog’s new baby will be born into a world where we have learned to integrate instinct and emotion with thoughtful approaches to life.
This is how the cortex in collaboration with the brainstem and limbic system saves us from just being a farm statistic. Like the movie camera icon in the diagram, it uses imagery to represent what is going on, what went on, and what might go on. Language is the currency of this neural domain and the feeling of safety the medium. We could bring the nasty ‘ole farmer a bomb. Or stand outside of the property line and shout at him. Or invite him to join us in changing the culture around here. Maybe make some movies together and sing some songs about what it’s like for some of us to have and others to not have.
When our mind is in a COAL rather than SCRU (click here for the video) state more possibilities become clear. The possible ideas we can perceive and express are nearly infinite as depicted above. Rather than say, “SCRU you McGregor” or “SCRU this farm!”, we notice that he’s sitting there with hay in his mouth clearly seeing us as a nuisance and not a collaborator in the grand scheme of things. So, we appeal to his humanity. The reality that he lives best by exercising good will. His inclination is to shoot, but his way to be human is to shake hands over a pint and a bowl of turnip soup. Well I guess this is where the rabbit freaks out with a human mind. They’ve no hands to put forward and can’t read books. So, maybe an animal rights activist, ecologist, and property rights attorney can join the book club?