Pop-neuroscience is just a fancy way of saying 'calm down'

by Dorian Minors

March 21, 2024

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt

I’m often struck by just how much of the pop-psych/neuroscience advice one sees for the average working person boils down to little more than “just cool the fuck out, and you’ll be better at stuff”. I guess, more to the point, I’m often left wondering why we feel the need to over-engineer this kind of thing so egregiously, particularly when most of these theories seem to produce as much bad advice as good advice. I have some thoughts, but let me show you what I mean, and maybe we’ll work out what’s so attractive about it along the way.

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Pop-psych theories on stress often use complex jargon to describe fundamentally simple concepts. They act less to inform, and more to reassure us, fascinate us, and absolve us of responsibility.

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I’m often struck by just how much of the pop-psych/neuroscience advice one sees for the average working person boils down to little more than “just cool the fuck out, and you’ll be better at stuff”. I guess, more to the point, I’m often left wondering why we feel the need to over-engineer this kind of thing so egregiously, particularly when most of these theories seem to produce as much bad advice as good advice.

I have some thoughts, but let me show you what I mean, and maybe we’ll work out what’s so attractive about it along the way.

Fight or flight is bad

We’ll start with an old favourite, amygdala hijack. I’ll quote from the same Atlantic article I quoted in my own article I linked there:

Negative emotions such as anger and fear activate the amygdala, which increases vigilance toward threats and improves your ability to detect and avoid danger … makes you fight, flee, or freeze—not think, “What would a prudent reaction be at this moment? … This makes good evolutionary sense: Half a million years ago, taking time to manage your emotions would have made you a tiger’s lunch …

Odds are, you no longer need your amygdala to help you outrun the tiger without asking your conscious brain’s permission. Instead, you use it to handle the nonlethal problems that pester you all day long. Even if you don’t have tigers to outrun, you can’t relax in your cave, because the emails are piling up.

This old gem is a sort of mash up of various pop-psych stuff. You have the overzealous interpretation of Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, mixed with the fact that the amygdala tracks emotional valence, and that extraordinary stressors produce a hyperaroused state (i.e. fight or flight) with fairly drastic impacts on behaviour. These all culminated in journalist Daniel Goleman’s pop-science book on his notion of Emotional Intelligence. The basic idea he writes about is that the amygdala, or rather, the limbic structures of the brain are more related to emotional processing. When something stresses you out, these more emotional structures supposedly ‘hijack’ your more thinky parts of the brain and make you behave in silly ways. I more thoroughly talk about why that’s not really a sensible way of thinking about the limbic structures here, so I won’t re-hash it. I will suffice to say that despite the sciencey jargon on the wikipedia entry it’s notable that at the time of writing, only two academic papers are cited, and neither directly address the theory.

That’s because amygdala hijack isn’t an academic theory. To be fair, it seems like a useful heuristic under some circumstances. Too much stress = bad, sure. What I’m surprised by is the fact that we need all of these pseudo-scientific contortions to feel comfortable with the idea that stress impacts our behaviour. What are we roping the amygdala in for? Why are there tigers involved in this story?

A similarly over-engineered theory, with a similar lack of academic credentials, is polyvagal theory. The idea there is that we can break the autonomic nervous system (i.e. all the nerves that are not the brain and spinal cord) down into three kind of groups:

  • The sympathetic nervous system, which mobilises us in response to stressors by making us engage in flight or flight behaviours;
  • Some subset of the parasympathetic nervous system, which immobilises us when we are too threatened; and
  • Another subset of the parasympathetic nervous system, which I guess is the porridge that is ‘just right’ and allows us to do things normally.

Now, I don’t need to talk about why this isn’t how the body works, because the wikipedia page is plenty clear about how unfavourably it’s been received as a theory.

What I’m confused by is why people want a theory that really gets into the nitty gritty of dorsal and vagal distinctions in nervous operation, and endless detail on the various nerve nuclei in the body, all to tell us that if we’re too stressed it’ll be unpleasant and we might withdraw, but if we’re normally stressed we’ll be fine.

What’s going on here

My initial thoughts are that there’s some kind of pareto distribution to these kinds of theories. Most people aren’t bothering to dig deeply into them theories, and on the surface the advice is pretty straight forward. They both make it clear that too much stress is a bad thing. Whatever marginal benefit the authors of the theories might have in mind with the more complex aspects are ignored because the main message is all people are really interested in.

I suspect, too, that there’s some of that malcolm gladwell shit going on. There I talk about the sociology of the interesting:

“It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.”

Davis goes on to notice that the most successful theories are those that subvert our weakly held beliefs. The hot-takes on things we don’t care very much about. If our strong beliefs are attacked, then we’re likely to resist the attack. If our existing beliefs are confirmed, we’re likely to do little more than nod and forget. But if the knowledge we don’t care about very much is revised, then it becomes interesting.

Both of these theories make it clear that the negative outcomes of being too stressed aren’t because we’re doing something wrong, but because our bodies are doing something we aren’t in control of. This is certainly a pretty interesting insight, no?

This then prompts the question of why we aren’t attracted to models of stress that say the same thing, but without any of these random add-ons. For example, I write about how stress actually works, using a pretty well accepted model that says the same thing but far more straightforwardly. Despite being around for much longer than these more questionably theories, it almost never features in pop-psychology content.

I can think of two reasons for this, off the top of my head. I guess the first would be that these kinds of theories tie into this pretty ancient intuition of ours that emotions and unconscious processes are bad, and stop us from being nice clean ‘rational’ creatures. The more well accepted models recognise that the distinction between the two isn’t as clean, which doesn’t feel very good. The accurate models factor in that we’re animals first, and we don’t like to hear that because we feel like humans are very special animals.

The second is the old pop-science confidence trick. Saying ‘too much stress is bad’ is much less compelling than ‘too much stress messes with your brain and so it’s bad’, even though the informational content is exactly the same.1

What we miss out on

Ok, so these models are attractive because they get across the main message, they reassure us that we’re not personally at fault, they accord with our intuitive notions of how special humans are, and it’s sexy to pepper our cocktail conversations with things like ‘dorsal vagal shutdown’ instead of ‘overstressed’.

Before we move on to our next category of model, I want to first talk about what gets missed when we indulge ourselves with these fight/flight models.

The most problematic aspect of these particular theories, for me, is that it alienates people with serious stress-related concerns. “Fight or flight” came into being to refer pretty specifically to a state of physical reaction called hypervigilence. This is a severe stress response to really high stakes situations, like threats to survival or traumatic incidents. Normal stress can kind of feel ‘fight or flight’ like, in that we might get jacked up by or want to avoid stressful situations, but it’s not the same thing. It doesn’t really feel fair to steal the term, and more to the point, we shouldn’t be encouraging people who are having life-or-death physical reactions to trivial daily stressors to just push through and carry on. They should be encouraged to seek support or something, because that’s not normal and they shouldn’t have to live that kind of life.

It’s notable that these theories are very popular with communities who do have mental health concerns. Polyvagal theory is popular in trauma circles, and amygdala hijack is popular in self-help circles, for example. This makes sense, since they are populations with higher incidences of actual hypervigilance. But for these people, and people who just want to be better more generally, these theories break down any time you move past that main message.

Emotions, and stress, are not bad guys. The sympathetico-adrenal response is all about recruiting resources to tackle the task at hand. So as stress goes up, so too does our performance at a given task. It’s only when stress becomes too great (or lasts too long) that it starts to produce these negative outcomes. Emotions are motivators, that help guide us to the most adaptive behaviours. Sometimes, of course, the emotion and the associated behaviours aren’t as helpful, but there is no such thing as action without emotion so demonising emotions isn’t going to get you very far.

Alright. On to the next.

Evolutionarily irrelevant brain bits

Polyvagal theory is a nice bridge here. It claims that the three branches it conjures out of the nervous system have an evolutionary order. The immobilising one is the oldest, followed by the mobilising one, with the goldilocks branch as the newest evolutionary feature of our nervous system. Obviously, the older branches are shit, goes the logic I guess.

This “old = bad” trope is our next common pop-psychology thread. The main offenders in this regard are any which reference the ‘lizard brain’. This old gem stems from the now discredited 1960’s Triune Brain model, which considers the brain in an onion-like configuration of the very old ‘reptilian brain’, the newer ‘early mammalian brain’, and the more recent still ‘neomammalian complex’. The author of the theory, MacLean, wasn’t quite so perjorative as pop-psych books tend to be, simply suggesting that the older structures were more about instinct, the middle structures about emotion, and the newer structures about higher-order thought. This has not stopped us from producing a slew of material teaching people to work past the impulses of the outdated wetware in favour of those much better cognitions borne of the architecture we more recently installed.

These days, the lizard brain is going out of fashion somewhat, and we are now more commonly troubling ourselves with the emotional responses of the ‘monkey brain’. It overlaps more easily with the more general approach of characterising our behaviour in the context of what chimpanzees, or bonobos, or whatever other close evolutionary relative might also do. All in all, the idea is that evolution gave us a stunning repertoire of useless, ineffectual, or otherwise maladaptive behaviours that are a detriment to our wellbeing. Much better to set those ape-like impulses aside in favour of the newer stuff built into our superior human brains.

Of course, phylogeny is not nearly so kind as to structure itself this neatly. There’s no particular evidence that any of the polyvagal ‘branches’ correspond to phases of evolutionary development, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the earliest versions of the animals from which we are descended had neocortices. One of the most remarkable things about studying the brain is discovering just how capable tiny neural circuits are at producing extremely complicated behaviour.

What’s going on here

I think our efforts to overcomplicate the explanations for our less satisfying behaviours with these tortured evolutionary narratives provide the same benefits of those in the fight or flight trend.

It leans into the distance pop-psychology models place between us and the responsibility for our actions. Like the amygdala, or the problematic vagal branches, the notion of lizard and monkey brains allow us to consider that our puzzling or troubling behaviours aren’t our fault, but the fault of these vestigial agents squatting in our heads.

More, the capacity for evolutionary stories to justify almost anything2 feeds the ‘interesting’ quality of these theories. We discover that the world is not how we might have expected, because some inventive evolutionary narrative contradicts what we have been otherwise taught about ourselves.

And of course it reinforces how special we think we are—look how silly all these old evolutionary things are, after all. In this case it’s not just sexy because we can pepper our conversation with scientific-sounding jargon, but we it comes with the bonus of demonstrating just how evolved we are for recognising how our more animalistic qualities were holding us back.

What we miss out on

But of course, equating old with bad produces many of the same pitfalls as attributing everything to an overactive stress response. Even assuming whatever we’re pointing at is some evolutionary vestige, attributing to it only fault ignores all the times it has gracefully allowed us to navigate the complexities of the world around us. So much of what we do occurs under the surface of our awareness. The assumption that the newest, and least developed aspects of our little human system are somehow more adapted to the world seems rather optimistic. And indeed, you’ll find that even we are skeptical of this kind of reasoning when it’s presented a different way. The same books and blogs and podcasts that will demonise our evolutionary brain bits will regularly rail against this unfulfilling modern life, nostalgic for our healthier paleolithic tendencies.

The upshot being that rather than fight these features of our system, evolutionary callbacks or not, we might be better served working with them.

Brain bits as enemy agents

All together, the anti-old brain-bits and anti-fight-or-flight-response tropes point at a more general use-case of neuroscience and psychology to identify psychic enemies. To make this a bit clearer, I’ll do a quick tangent. There is a class of psychological models we might call ‘parts work’. In this class you have stuff like internal family systems therapy, schema therapy, gestalt therapy, or even perhaps dialectical behaviour therapy. These models all hold in common the idea that within us are many different forces. At times these forces are helpful, and at times these forces get in our way. We successfully move forward by working with these internal ‘parts’ to achieve our goals, and taming those that are causing trouble.

Modern pop-science usage of brain bits is indistinguishable from this kind of parts work. The amygdala is the bad guy for ‘hijacking’ our frontal lobes or whatever. It’s not important that this isn’t how the brain works, because the role these brain bits are playing is the psychic enemy. More recently I’ve noticed that people are using brain waves to do a similar thing. We don’t want to be in the stressed beta wave state, we perform much better when we spend time in the relaxed alpha wave state. Again, that brain waves don’t function like this is not so important as putting a name to the psychic enemy. Indeed, a fairly popular consumer facing version of ‘parts work’, positive intelligence, explicitly pairs its psychological parts with brain bits. Their white paper singles out two of the more well-studied neural networks of the brain—the default mode network, often associated with more internal and reflective forms of thought, and a fronto-parietal network often associated with more external and task-oriented forms of thought. To quote them:

Recast in the language of Positive Intelligence, most of our Judge and Saboteur responses are creations of mind wandering [default mode network] activity, while our Sage arises from the mindful actions of the [fronto-parietal network].3

And again, that the operation of these networks bears very little relationship to this simplification is clearly not relevant to the task at hand—naming the enemy.

What’s going on here

Most parts work spends time naming the parts. So you see positive intelligence calls their parts ‘judges’, and ‘saboteurs’, and ‘sages’. Internal family systems calls their parts ‘exiles’, and ‘managers’, and ‘firefighters’. Using brain bits seems more-or-less like the same thing. Call it a saboteur, or call it an amygdala. The result is the same. You have created something you can now have a dialogue with—you’ve isolated an aspect of yourself and can now work with it.

That some parts work models, like positive intelligence, take the further step of equating their ‘parts’ explicitly with brain bits indicates that the brain bit aspect is important. Perhaps the increasing scientism of the average lay-person makes it hard to sell the story-like aspects of parts work. Much easier to swallow a narrative about the default mode network than it is to swallow the idea of ‘sages’ and ‘saboteurs’. I suppose, in this context, the confidence trick is doing its best work.

I have spoken before about just how little we can glean about behaviour from the brain. What we can glean is interesting, but often more complicated than we might like. In contrast, parts work is the epitome of the pareto distribution we spoke about before. Very high gain from the main messages, with very little need to delve into the margins, if, indeed, there exist any margins on these highly stylised models. Reallocating all the brain jargon bouncing around in collective consciousness to sell these ideas seems pretty reasonable to me.

And of course, this is distance from responsibility made paramount. You are quite literally distinguishing yourself from these newly named agents in the mind. It’s the very premise of the class of models.

What we miss out on

You know, I actually suspect this is the least troubling trend. It is, of course, the most irritating for me. Brain scientists love nothing more than to talk about the brain. This is made remarkably difficult when everyone is going around thinking that all these random psychological concepts are literal brain bits. Do you just nod politely and zone out as they regale you with their ostensible knowledge of the brain? Do you try to wince through the arbitrary brain jargon, so you can at least engage with the, often quite interesting, psychological stuff lying underneath? Or do you steer them into actual brain stuff, with the ever-present risk that they are the ones who must nod politely and zone out? Tough questions, all. But the whole thing seems largely harmless.

The only real risk here is that we over-emphasise these psychological enemies. Spending a great deal of time calling out parts of your mind for messing up your day seems a little rash. I’m sure your mind works against you sometimes, but I’ll wager that your parts are usually doing some pretty important stuff you’re not giving them credit for. Again, so much of what we are lies underneath our conscious awareness. The average person wouldn’t spend any great length of time organising how the lungs do their breathing, because typically they’re doing the job just fine on their own. The same is probably true of these parts. We shouldn’t forget to celebrate them as, if not more often than we correct them.

Outro

These convoluted narratives we create to explain straightforward psychological phenomena, then, do far more than simply detail our troubling behaviours.

Simply telling someone to ‘cool the fuck out’ certainly gets the main message across, but it doesn’t really do much else. It doesn’t clearly isolate the problem. It definitely doesn’t make us feel special and rational. It actually makes us the problem, rather than doing the important work of creating distance so that we can more dispassionately address it. And it’s not very sexy at all.

I guess I just wish that we didn’t keep picking shit ones.


  1. And, despite the risks doing this poses 

  2. This is not to say that evolutionary narratives aren’t useful. I’ve written about how they can be. Simply that they are only very narrowly useful, in filtering out some of the sillier theories. 

  3. As an amusingly topical bonus, they also write later “The [default mode network] is interconnected with subcortical structures of our more primitive limbic system that is heavily involved in regulating our emotional responses”. So, getting our monkey brain and limbic hijack in there for good measure. Wouldn’t want anyone to feel left out. 


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