What’s next?

Brainstorm Ideas Questions African
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Nigel Farage writes in the Telegraph today that he believes people no longer identify as left-wing or right-wing, but rather as Remainers or Leavers.

It’s an interesting stance to take, but I’m not convinced it holds much water. In the short term it does; all the time there is the chance Brexit could be stopped, conservatives (small c) that wish to keep things just as they are, will do all they can to preserve the status quo.

Mr Farage identifies these people as un-democratic, and focuses his party on ‘restoring democracy’. Obviously, this is a populist stance. It’s easy to paint the government as patently anti-Brexit, particularly with its pervading liberal authoritarian viewpoint. But Brexit is convoluted and complex. Most of the current MPs voted for Article 50; they all agreed we should leave. Since then though, they’ve become hopelessly divided over exactly how to leave. Simply reducing it down to ‘we haven’t left yet, democracy is broken’ might be a little bit disingenuous. Yes, the likes of Letwin, Cooper, etc. have tried to take control of the situation to ‘stop the process’, but they could only do that because of the division about the way forward and lack of leadership from number 10, not necessarily because the system was broken. Indeed some people went along with them as they saw it as a way to break the deadlock, particularly with the indicative votes.

This disparity of consensus is also showing up in the leadership race. Each of the 5 million candidates has a slightly different take on how to do the Brexit thing, from Hard-No-Deal Raab through to Second-Referendum Gyimah.

The thing is, ‘we haven’t left yet, democracy is broken,’ is a nice simple concept for people to wrap their heads around. It’s also emotive. It ticks all the right boxes to get the old brain chemicals firing and stir up a bit of conflict in the old grey matter.

But what happens once Brexit actually happens (and it should do, most MPs agree with that)? We’ll move on, some people will be disgruntled, others vaguely happy something got done, but maybe not so happy with the eventual compromises I think we’ll have to make (even No Deal is a sort of compromise). What does a Leaver or a Brexiteer stand for once we’ve left? These are the messages that the Brexit Party need to focus on, I think. Some of the conservative leadership candidates have cottoned on to this, like Boris with his UBI-lite school funding.

It’s about time the Brexit Party started defining more of what they would stand for post-Brexit, and show how they will unite the likes of Fox and the Widdecombe. There is plenty to talk about, I’d just like to hear it.

Animals

Orangutan Mother Animal Mammal
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Going back to David Eagleman’s Incognito for a moment, one of the key things that stuck out for me was a finding he refers to by the nineteenth-century psychologist William James, who was the first to get suspicious of the idea that humans were somehow better than other animals because we had fewer instincts. He felt this to be completely wrong, and instead suggested that we are more intelligent and neurologically flexible than other animals because we possess more instincts than they do.

Eagleman makes much of the idea that the ‘conscious’ part of the brain is just a small fraction of the whole brain, and that the rest of the unconscious is, in the large part, made up of these pre-programmed instincts, almost like computer routines, that have been so hard-coded into us, that in a lot of cases that they are in our DNA and we are born with them. These instincts are tools in our toolbox, and as we have the most tools, we became the most adaptable creatures.

Now, for fans of Hayek, this ties in with his ideas of the Extended Order, but it doesn’t sit too well with them. He saw the Extended Order as coming from somewhere between instinct and reason. The problem is, his appreciation of neuroscience was based on what we knew in the 60’s and 70’s, which means that he may have been a bit off the mark. But the fact that we know so much more about the functioning of the brain and the subconscious now doesn’t mean we have to write off his ideas. Instead, I would say that what he understood to be meant by instinct was perhaps a bit too simplistic, perhaps nothing more than ‘gut reactions’ or ‘basic instincts’, and that it is this huge array of more complex instincts that drive the Extended Order.

This is reinforced when you consider the way our brains are very much programmed to be social, even to the point where solutions to complex puzzles we humans would normally struggle with can be easily solved when they are presented in a social context. We are wired from the ground up to be social, and it is this that drives the Extended Order – the traditions and politics and religions and laws and everything else that we create around us to keep society civil.

And for the most part, we have no idea these instincts are there. Which raises some interesting questions…

Now

Clock Clock Face Wave Present Year
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A couple of weeks ago, when some of the company I work for were away for a team meeting in Oxford, the late evening talk turned philosophical. The conversation revolved around spirituality vs. ‘secularism’ (for want to a better word), and the idea that what many perceive as God, or some kind of spiritual agent in their life could just as easily be perceived as the Extended Order in action – whereby ‘coincidences’ appear to happen because you are on the look out for something that just happens to pass by as you were expecting it. The causes of that event are usually so complex that the brain has reduces it down to two things, a) it happened for a reason, there must be someone/thing making it happen, or b) our poor brains could never begin to guess the complexities of what caused the event to happen, it’s all bit of a mystery, but it’s nice it happened then, just when I needed it to.

I’ve touched on all this before, but it struck me this evening that there is a parallel between that debate and the argument of two very good books I’ve read in recent years – The Power of Now by Elkhart Tolle and Clarity by Jamie Smart. Both, I think, argue the same point; that by worrying about future events, or spending too much time in our thoughts obsessing about the future is a waste of time, and that the true way to think is to focus only on the present moment.

I like this idea a lot, and if taken to it’s logical conclusion, can mean that life becomes one walking meditation or prayer. Difficult to maintain, but quite fulfilling if you can pull it off (I rarely achieve anything close to it).

The point is that Echart argues his point from a quasi-religious perspective, Jamie from very much a rationalist/scientific perspective. Both achieve the same result.

As I’ve said before, rational viewpoints and religious viewpoints both emerge within the Extended Order, and people choose one or the other depending on their subconscious biases. Either way, they often end up at the same place, one where the future is not set in stone, but open to chance and the vagaries of randomness.

Many find a future they cannot predict to be terrifying (particularly those of a negative disposition), but really that’s all it will ever be – a terrifying future; the present is rarely scary, and we are usually more than capable of dealing with unpleasant or bad things if they do occur. Take a look around you now and appreciate all that you have. It may not be everything you wanted or even expected, but there is always plenty to be positive about.

The Chemical Brothers

Neuron Brain Human Nerve Science
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Continuing on from yesterday’s post, there’s one other interesting thing about the brain that has deep implications for storytelling.

It would seem that to get someone’s attention fully, we need to show or tell them something that does two things to their brain.

First off, it must interest them. When their brain becomes engaged with something that arouses curiosity or some kind of emotional response, it releases the chemical Dopamine. This ensures that their attention will remain on what you are telling them.

You might assume this would be enough, but to really get someone’s attention, you must also get their brain to generate Norepinephrine (or Noradrenaline as we Brits refer to it). As you might guess from the UK version of the name, this is generated in situations of stress or danger.

The most effective state of attention can be attained when these two neurotransmitters are found in the brain in equal amounts. The good news is, because of the brain’s ability to behave the same way in both real and imagined situations, both chemicals should be released when someone experiences a good story, well told.

Why do I Love You?

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Having studied Religious Studies at University, I’ve always been fascinated by stories and storytelling. In fact, from a very young age, I have always been trying to either write my own, or find ways of presenting other peoples’ (for better or worse – my efforts in the late 1970’s, aged 6 or 7, to put on a stage play version of Star Wars never materialised).

I knew that, in terms of societal control and religion, stories are always the bedrock. Stories about the good guys and the bad guys; the locals and the people from other parts or religions. Good stories need conflict, so what better way to keep a community or country all pointing in the same direction than to tell stories about them vs. everyone else?

But it wasn’t until I discovered Simon Synek’s little tome, ‘Start With Why,’ that I began to understand just why stories are so powerful. It’s all to do with how our brains are structured, specifically two key areas of the brain – the limbic system and the neo-cortex – and their one big difference.

The neo-cortex, the outer part of the brain, deals with self-control, planning, reasoning, morality and abstract thought. Most importantly, it deals with language. It’s the bit that chatters away incessantly with words, ceaselessly analysing everything that is happening to, and around, you as you go through the day.

The limbic system, which some assume to be the older part of the brain as it sits inside the neo-cortex, deals with emotions, motivations, and memory. It also deals with the choices that we make, and, crucially, does not have any capacity for language. This combination of factors is why story is so powerful.

By telling someone an interesting story, the analytical neo-cortex is bypassed, and we start talking directly to their limbic system. The neo-cortex shuts up for a while as we become engaged with the story. Brain scans have shown that when a person hears a story or watches a film, the same parts of the brain fire that would fire if they were experiencing the events for real. The limbic system processes all this information, and stores these ‘experiences’ as explicit memories.

This is why film/TV and stories are so engaging. As far as your poor limbic system is concerned, you might as well be there. You really are facing up to the Empire, being chased by a horde of the undead, or waving goodbye to your new, beloved, Extra-Terrestrial friend.

This is powerful stuff, and something quite hard for us to comprehend, as the lack of language capabilities in the limbic system makes it hard for us to articulate how something has an emotional impact on us. As Synek points out; try expressing to someone why you love your partner. It’s incredibly difficult to put those emotions into words.

How We Become We

Thought Brain Mind Idea Psychology
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I’m listening to a fascinating audiobook at the moment which is so full of big ideas I’m sure I’ll be listening to it again and again in the coming months and years. It’s called ‘The Neurobiology of We’ by Dr Daniel J. Siegel M.D.

It’s more like a series of lectures in which he builds up a coherent argument based around relationships, the mind and the brain and how the three interact. He starts with exploring how memories are formed before moving on to look at how our character traits develop as children. This he uses as a foundation to explore what emotions are (and they are more complicated than you’d think) before topping it off with the most sensible and meaningful exploration of mindfulness I’ve seen in a long time, if ever.

I’ll be exploring a lot of the ideas in coming posts, but if you have an Audible account, it’s well worth checking out (although stick with it as it starts quite slowly, and I almost wrote him off as a bit of a hippy before the serious science kicked in).

I’m still processing a lot of the ideas and trying to tie it in with my fledgling theories of society and liberty based on my readings of Hayek (in particular) and von Mises, but the links are definitely there. It’s a shame there’s no book version (that I’m aware of). Two key concepts that have really got my mind whirring are maximising complexity (which comes out of chaos theory) and his ideas of coherence and integration.