Neuroanthropology

For a greater understanding of the encultured brain and body…

Impulse and Cupidity

Posted by dlende on June 22, 2010


So I’m now down in Tampa, getting set up at the University of South Florida after some good years at Notre Dame. Tampa looks great – an exciting city. And USF looks like it will definitely support interdisciplinary efforts like neuroanthropology. So it’s all good.

Here’s a quote that caught my eye on Sunday:

For in the anything-goes atmosphere of our recent past, it wasn’t just external controls that went awry; inwardly, people lost constraint and common sense, too. Now there is a case to be made that problems of self-regulation — of appetite, emotion, impulse and cupidity — may well be the defining social pathology of our time.

In the late 1970s, the historian Christopher Lasch famously described America as a culture of narcissism. Today we might well be called a nation of dysregulation. The signs that something is amiss in our inner mechanisms of control and restraint are everywhere.

It came from the NY Times article Dysregulation Now by Judith Warner. She featured the work of Peter Whybrow in the second half of the piece. Whybrow directs the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Whybrow is the author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough. It definitely looks like a neuroanthropology-friendly work, with the Amazon description reading: “The indictment of American society offered here—that America’s supercharged free-market capitalism shackles us to a treadmill of overwork and overconsumption, frays family and community ties and leaves us anxious, alienated and overweight—is familiar. What’s more idiosyncratic and compelling is the author’s grounding his treatise in political economy (citing everyone from Adam Smith to Thorstein Veblen) as well as in neuropsychiatry, primatology and genetics.”

Building on Whybrow’s work, Warner writes near the end of her piece:

The larger structural problems that create our widespread envy, greed, overconsumption and debt — gross income inequality, for starters — will be much more difficult, politically, to address… [T]he pressures that drive the dysregulated American haven’t abated any since the fall of 2008. Wall Street is resurgent, and unemployment is still high. For too many people, the cycle of craving and debt that drives our treadmill existence simply can’t be broken.

It’s the “modern misfits” story, where human nature no longer matches the human culture we’ve created. That too is familiar. But at least there is an appreciation of causation at different levels, from human psychology to structural problems, and that’s good. And I do happen to think that issues surrounding consumption and self-regulation are rather important, and not sufficiently recognized as problems that need more than simple answers like a Drug War or a pill to break the cycle of craving…

Dysregulation Nation article link.

Peter Whybrow’s website.

3 Responses to “Impulse and Cupidity”

  1. Cynthia said

    Thank you– I enjoyed your post!

  2. Marlon Adams said

    I thought this was a article to post. I also thought it would be interesting to mention that Marshall McLuhan wrote about the narcissistic attitude towards technology as a kind of closed circuit, in which the individual and society is unaware of the effect of that the technology has on it, and also that the technology is an extension of themselves, just as Narcissus was unaware that the reflection in the water was actually himself. When considering this, I have to myself how many times, when presented with the effects of consumerism, advertising and inequality on our culture, I have heard friends and co-workers say in defense: “Yeah, but none of that affects ME”; they seem to agree with the facts, and recognize that it is a problem, but refuse to admit that it affects them or anyone they know. I am growing more worried that one of the affects of our culture becoming narcissistic is that no one believes that there is any problem, that its just the Michael Moores and the socialist blowing everything out of proportion and trying to destroy the American way of life (which is has become an infectious ideology in other parts of the world). It seems plausible, that as our higher cognitive abilities lose control over our baser desires, that we might also be losing the kind of self-awareness and emotional control needed to curb those appetites and reverse the harm they cause. If greater self-awareness is something that develops over time, just as greater cognitive abilities can be developed and sustained through keeping the mind active, then we have to ask how the brain would be affected by a fast-paced culture centered around egotism and self-indulgence. We already know the answer, its just a question of how we can reverse such a devastating snowball effect? If the problem is cultural, and the problem inhibits the very cognitive abilities needed to begin reversing the effects (long term memory, concentration, decision making), then where do we begin?

  3. johnmccreery said

    Daniel, I do hope your move to SFU/Tampa is good news. Anyway, a heads up. The next Sunbelt conference, a.k.a., annual meeting of the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is, I believe, scheduled to be in Tampa (actually St. Pete Island) next February. Sunbelts are by far the most interesting academic meetings that I have ever attended; might be worth taking a look at.

    John

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