We are not alone

I’ve been investigating the connection, if it’s there, between the substrate of human emotions and the ways we respond to climate change, and trying to do so from an orthodox scientific perspective.

There’s plenty of peer-reviewed work out there framing climate change in terms of people’s values, attitudes and behaviours. It’s generally presented for the purpose of encouraging better methods for communicating how urgent the threat of climate change has become and/or better measures for mitigating and adapting to that threat. But I’m looking for something about people that I believe springs from deep within, deeper than values, attitudes and behaviours. There’s also a decent body of literature on our psychological and emotional responses to climate change, but it lacks the grounding in hard science, hard enough to chip your teeth on, that I need for a credible academic study. It seems that ’emotions’ are slippery terrain, easy(ish) to describe in commonplace terms, but difficult to pin down in the form of findings that can be systematically and falsifiably tested.

So I found my way to the work of the late neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (I’m sad to say he died last year), who meets my criteria for a rigorous but not entirely dispassionate master of the field. And it’s drawn me off on a bit of a tangent. Here’s what I learned:

Feelings such as grief, rage, playful joy, loving care and several others live deep within the mind, and can be observed – via brain-imaging – in the deepest, oldest parts of the human brain. They can also be artificially aroused using ‘deep brain stimulation’. Panksepp dedicated his research to compiling evidence for the existence this handful of core emotional systems, which appear to be the source for the many complex social feelings that people generally experience and talk about as ’emotions’. His studies indicate that the fundamental, underlying packages of emotional feelings are not only innate to us, from birth, but that we also share them with our mammal cousins, and to varying degrees with other creatures too. Which is to say they are experienced, in the minds of creatures great and small, as bona fide ‘feelings’.

That won’t come as news to anyone with an empathetic interest in living creatures. Or to children, or I gather to members of most indigenous societies in the world. The kinds of people for whom the personhood of animals has never been in doubt. And for Panksepp it’s just an unsentimental fact, supported by a preponderance of neuroscientific evidence. Our fellow creatures have feelings too – and by extension they experience consciousness in ways not so very different from ourselves.

But by a quirk of neuro-biological science, conclusions (no matter how rigorously arrived at) which undermine (no matter how unintentionally) the conceit of human exceptionalism, are considered unsophisticated and therefore can be quietly marginalised and disregarded. As if that whole business with Darwin and the monkeys didn’t teach us much at all. Consciousness and the capacity for feelings make us unique among all life-forms, so the story goes. So Panksepp’s work, while not exactly heretical, isn’t yet mainstream.

Maybe it would just be too inconvenient for a science which has been in thrall to behaviourism for the best part of a century, to let go of the notion of non-human creatures as, in effect, mindless automata – experimental subjects (no consent needed!) and living demonstrations of the efficacy of the “reward and punishment” approach to behavioural control. There’s also the conundrum of trying to explore the pre-linguistic depths of the mind using science, a language-based system of reason. Science seems intrinsically happier grappling with the topic of cognition, a language-based function of the human brain, rather than dealing with deep emotion, which is an evolutionary feature of potentially all animal minds (despite the workings of deep emotion being in some sense more rudimentary and easier to evidence than the freakish complexities of cortical-level cognitive consciousness). In fact, the dominant discourse in neuroscience would still deny that word ‘mind’ – associated with subjective consciousness – to any vessel of non-cognitively experienced feelings.

I’m certain, however, that the rest of the field will, in time, catch up with Panskepp on this. And I’m hopeful that there are links to be explored between the deep emotional substrate of human life and the story of climate change.

To sign off I’d like to share this extract from the coda to Panksepp and Biven’s The Archaeology of Mind: neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions:

Animals…are sentient beings, and their affective capacities [ie ability to experience subjective feelings] arise from the same type of neural soil as we have. Humans may be abundantly more “rational,” and more “reflective” about their states of mind, but mammals all experience emotions affectively. And as the clinical studies of Merker (2007) and Shewmon et al. (1999) have revealed, those feelings arise from very deep regions of both human and animal brains. Obviously, we humans can dwell on the existential aspects of our lives more deeply than other species. After all, we can speak and think symbolically. But this does not give us privileged access to raw affective experiences. What a terribly empty and lonely world it would be if we humans were the only conscious creatures within the inextricably interwoven fabric of life. What a wonderful relief it is when we realize that there are bubbles of consciousness wherever our fellow animals roam the earth.

We are not alone. How wonderful indeed!

6 Replies to “We are not alone”

  1. I would say it’s not a tangent at all. Our civilization – and I speak of the civilization of modernist West that has become imposed or imported everywhere around the globe – requires a certain kind of human exceptionalism in order to justify it’s mandate to brutalize the world and treat it as a dumping ground for emissions and pollution. To recognize the “personhood” of anything but humans is forbidden, as you point out, and this is still subtly but rigidly enforced. I suppose we should be grateful that in bringing up these ideas we are not in any danger of being burnt at the stake as for witchcraft. Not at this point anyway.
    The irony is that the price for this human exceptionalism may well be renouncing our own deep rooted emotions, at the cost of psychic health. It’s a cost that we can neither recognize nor therefore evaluate. Destroying the world we destroy ourselves at the deep level of vital emotional life- we destroy our Id, as Freud called it – and with it the bedrock of our sanity?

  2. Burnt at the stake… that’s a telling association to make!

    I’d guess anyone who tests out norm-defying perspectives, even someone with one foot in the door of institutional respectability like Prof Panksepp, is aligned in some way with the ‘witches’, crazies and fools of the past – people on the margins who couldn’t paper over the cracks in their psyche brought about by the weight of civilizational pressure on the authentic, relational, emotional self. Even now, those of us perturbed by environmental crisis and willing to make a bit of fuss about it, are a small minority and perceived of as cranks or worse by the good citizenry of the land.

    Sometimes the Dark Ages don’t seem so far gone.

  3. why is it that the most thought provoking posts seem to point out how smart we are not ? Maybe that is why it has taken all these milliennia to get us this far, tho possible that we have nearly lost our way, our collective attachment to the earth. So it seems we are now busily sawing away at the branch of evolution that we came from while sitting on it, popping our own bubble, ensuring our own fate.

    The response of Carl Sagan to the question of why we humans should spend so lavishly of the SETI, Seach for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, projects comes to mind, what i remember of it tho perhaps embellished or butchered completely.

    His response centered on the idea that the question – is there intelligent life out there in the universe – had a binary answer: either there was or there was not.

    If there was, then we ought to know whether it was (only) bacteria or other single cell organisms, or it was highly evolved and capable of destroying our efforts at “civilization”, or maybe even capable of teaching us something. And we ought to know that, where we stood.

    Failing that, if we are indeed alone in the universe as sentient beings, then the implication is that the humans are the most highly evolved form of life. And we ought to know that too.

    Which answer is scarier… ?

    Keep asking the questions

    1. As you say, Richard, we need to keep asking questions, especially if we’re the incurably curious type. So much is unresolved about our (human) place in the world. Things that just don’t match up.

      I think I get the passion of the Carl Sagans of the world for pushing the boundaries of enquiry into space, but it doesn’t seem anything we could learn there would be of practical use at this point. Our daily well-being not to mention our fate as a species is tied up now in the web of life right here at home.

  4. Chris,
    You might find this article about how people respond to climate change was interesting. https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/making-climate-change-matter-by-laurence-tubiana-2018-12 How do we get the public to care? I must admit I have lost a lot of faith that Americans are going to be successful in changing their behavior any time soon. Sometimes people wait until pain and suffering become to great to ignore and there is little anyone can do for them until then.

    December 19th and the temperature today reached 56. Tomorrow we are expecting upper 40’s and rain. So I pulled the plastic cover off the low tunnel and planted seeds; spinach, kale, and lettuce. There are some aspects of climate change that I enjoy. Seems almost sacrilegious to admit that.

  5. Thanks for the link to the article, Jody, it’s very interesting.

    There are tried and tested ways of getting people to care about particular things, and in theory these could be deployed to raise awareness of climate change. They involve hacking our innate emotional drives to commandeer attention and motivate us into action, as if of our own volition. Demagogues, advertisers, cult leaders, con artists and stage hypnotists are masters of this. It’s a form of mind control, so there are ethical obstacles, but arguably could be justified in the cause of tackling climate change. On the other hand, the bandwidth for mind control in Western-style industrial society is already dominated by the cult of consumption, competition and self-interest – which is directly opposed to the pro-social and pro-nature values we need to tackle climate change – and that cult’s mighty defenders show no signs of giving up.

    So I don’t think there’ll be a breakthrough until enough of us living energy-extreme lifestyles feel the bite, on our own skin, of the changes ahead. As you say, when the pain and suffering become too great to ignore.

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