Limbic Theater

I wrote the following some time back. But I think it’s worth updating and revisiting the subject.

DecodeDC had a good episode on the neuroscience behind political advertising before it died. You can still get the podcast ifyou look for it but the website appears to be gone. I heartily recommend you go over there and listen to it. The gist is this. There are two methods of political advertising. One method tends to lay out evidence and data and leave the voter to decide what to do. The other appeals to emotions and tries to get the voter scared to do anything other than what they want the voter to do. I’m sure everybody is aware of these two approaches. I’m sure readers in Pennsylvania are sick to death of both.

But I think this is important.

The human brain isn’t a nice clear processor. It’s a kludged up mess of things that are brilliantly effective, things that worked once and no longer work so great, and things that that are now maliciously inept but are too physiologically expensive to dump.

Historically, the brain has been categorized into two rough divisions: the neocortex and the allocortex.

The neocortex is the modern mammalian donation to our group heritage. When you see a picture of a human brain and all those folds: that’s neocortex. It’s what makes mammals smart. Other branches of vertebrates (notably birds) or invertebrate classes (such as cuttlefish) can also be smart. But they are not using a neocortex because they have none. They’re using something else—and that’s a discussion for another time.

Under the neocortex is the allocortex. It’s contains all the equipment that we started with when we started the long path towards mammals. It’s not the same as our ancestors—evolution works on everything available. But there is a lot of common embryology between mammals, birds and reptiles in the allocortex.

Deep in the allocortex is the limbic system. The limbic system is what allows us to feel emotion, mitigate behavior, operate the endocrine system. What we tend to value as human accomplishment—programming computers, writing fiction—is enabled by the neocortex. What we program computers to do and write fiction about derives a lot from the limbic system. Larry Niven was talking about this in Protector: Intelligence is a tool that is not always used intelligently.

The limbic system exists in reptiles. It’s what allows us to feel lust and anger. It’s what gets involved in violence and pornography. Where we might have changed it, or it changed us, is transforming mating urge into love and violence into defense. The limbic system is what gets stirred into war but it won’t successfully complete a revolution.

Within the neocortex is the frontal lobe and within the frontal cortex is the prefrontal cortex. This is where complex behavior and understanding originates. It’s intimately involved in what is called executive function. Deciding right from wrong. Good from bad. Consequences from current actions. It also has a huge connection to the limbic system.

Back in the bad old days of psychosurgery we had lobotomies. We have a cultural idea of lobotomies but let’s think about the actual surgery. Initially, this involved actual removal of some of the actual brain. This was adjusted into a prefrontal leucotomy: destroying tissue in the frontal lobes by injecting alcohol. Ultimately this was refined into the standard prefrontal lobotomy where the connection was severed between the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus.

The thalamus is part of the limbic system.

My old neurophysiology teacher, James E. Breazile, suggested it might operate this way. The pre-frontal cortex operates on what is significant. The limbic system determines that significance. (Apologies to Dr. Breazile if I didn’t get it right.)

Humans modify everything they touch, even themselves. We modify our fears, hates and lusts into other things. Hold them back. Attempt to use them intelligently.

Until we get to politics.

It’s important to understand that nearly all advertising in general is an attempt to engage that limbic system. To get it to wake up and bug the neocortex to buy that car, that soda, that candy. It’s an attempt to create magical thinking where desire or ideology is what is measured rather than actual evidence. The neocortex is perfectly able to determine what the right thing is but it must be supplied with the concept of “right.” This is why truly intelligent people (in the neocortical sense) can go right off the rails when something they believe in is under discussion. They’re not crazy. They’re not suddenly stupid. But their limbic system has defined the “right” thing and their neocortex accommodates. This is part of being a human being. Every one of us had seen it and everyone has done it.

This is what I find so exciting and hopeful about science. Science is administered by human beings—human beings riddled with the same inconsistencies and difficulties I’ve been describing. But it is an attempt to structure an evidence-based culture where these idiosyncrasies and failures can be scrutinized in the hope that the community as a whole can overcome the inevitable failures of individuals.

In politics what’s important about any candidate is what they want to do and will do when in office. That is the only possible useful criteria in the intelligent determination of what a candidate’s policy will be. All of the other material such as his color, height, background, education, previous experience must be used as an attempt to determine those policies.

Nothing else matters.

Yet out political system attempts to use limbic system involvement to overcome intelligent determination. Is the candidate the right color? Social class? Does he use the correct key words? Does he attend the requisite public functions? The truth of a candidate’s proclamation is less important than the nature of the proclamation. It’s dispiriting this sort of thing is so successful.

What we need is evidence-based politics. But we won’t get it until we start responding as citizens to actual evidence.





Limbic Theater — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks, Steven, for a clear explanation and analysis. I really wish evidence-based politics could happen, but I don’t hold out much hope for reason to prevail. Maybe if we start educating our kids in methods to weigh evidence versus propaganda? Especially in dealing with social media, as some countries in Europe do.