Obscuring Banalities

December 16, 2022

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There's this trend in popular science that has puzzled me for a while of disguising something very straightforward as something very clever. A convenient example of this is the regular abuse of the poor amygdala. People love the idea of this little brain structure just running roughshod over the rational parts of our mind when we feel stressed. Needless to say, from my attitude, this is all pretty incorrect. So why do it?


We often use complicated-sounding words to dress up simple ideas about the human experience. But this isn't just self-indulgence. It's also a desire to conform to the right 'ways' of knowing as well as a desire for something to point at---an enemy, so to speak.

There is a trend of disguising straightforward ideas as something more clever in popular science. 'Calm down' becomes 'get out of your amygdala'. Enjoying hugs becomes a function of 'oxytocin, the love hormone'. This is a little bit self-indulgence. But it is also a desire for a different kind of epistemology, where knowledge production is seen as regimented and scientific, not simply human guesswork or anecdote. More deeply, it's a desire to have something to point at. For example, when people call their amygdala' an 'alarm bell' it allows them to identify a feature of stress that plagues them personally. It allows them to depersonalise their problems too---they aren't sensitive people, it's just an overactive amygdala. Similar things can be seen in the obsession with the vagus nerve and the 'reward pathway' in the brain. Blaming these features for problems allows people to avoid blaming themselves. But, this attitude has risks. People become thoughtless and stop at the literature, deploying these buzzwords without understanding the complexities of the issues they are discussing. We end up with these demons, as the fault of many problems, and this perspective can lead us to misleading conclusions.

There's this trend in popular science that has puzzled me for a while of disguising something very straightforward as something very clever.

A convenient example of this is the regular abuse of the poor amygdala. In this article, I quote a professor1 matter-of-factly reporting in the Atlantic that 'odds are, you no longer need your amygdala to help you outrun the tiger without asking your conscious brain's permission ... you use it to handle the nonlethal problems that pester you all day long'. This Atlantic quote makes a frequent appearance in my articles because it's such a good example of how people treat this almond shaped lump of neurons.

People love the idea of this little brain structure just running roughshod over the rational parts of our mind when we feel stressed. Here's an excerpt from the Harvard Business Review that I also treat uncharitably, over here: 'The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers'.

As I note in that article, this turn of phrase has been super sexy in business circles since a pop-psychology book from the 90's wheedled its way into McKinsey. I hear it regularly now, in my occasional side-projects in the consulting world. 'Get out of the amygdala and into the frontal lobes' is another perennial favourite that's an even worse bastardisation of the core idea.

Needless to say, from my attitude, this is all pretty incorrect. The amydala responds to emotion, sure. All emotion though, not just the negative ones. And there's no particular evidence that it somehow 'takes over' from the rest of the brain 'without permission' when you're stressed. Indeed, it's not even clear to me that this is ever a helpful characterisation of the process of being stressed. Stress unlocks resources to meet challenges. That's the whole point of stress.

What is interesting though, is that at the most superficial level of the heuristic, it actually works really well. When people say this kind of thing, they mean something like 'cool the fuck out'. This sentiment is hardly new. I've pointed out before:

Plato described emotion and reason as the horses that pull us in two directions. Isaiah, the biblical prophet, encouraged us to come together and reason, rather than act without thinking. The idea is truly as old as writing, and the idea is still popular today.

So, this new variation usually lands.

More than simple self-indulgence

And perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that the business world adopted some complicated sounding words to dress the concept up. There's a reason people like Jamie Wheal and his cookie cutter brethren have 'advised the executives at Deloitte, Red Bull, Google, Lululemon, Facebook, TD Ameritrade, Nike, and Goldman Sachs'.2 It's an entire business model designed around dressing up banalities in big words: the intellectually impoverished notion of what smartness looks like.3

But this is simply a deranged version of something we find in less high-powered, self-important circles. The popularity of neurotransmitters in the public sphere is an example of the same thing. As I've said before:

Indeed, I'm frankly never quite sure exactly what value neurotransmitters have in actually understanding brain and behaviour better ... I have never once heard a construction ... where the reference to the neurotransmitter was anything more than cosmetic. To say 'going for a run will trigger a release of dopamine, which will make you feel good', has precisely the same informational content as 'going for a run will make you feel good'. Indeed, that's not even how dopamine works, and I'd be surprised if anyone noticed because including the word dopamine made absolutely zero difference to the sentence's meaning.

What we see here is not just self-indulgence. It's a desire for a different kind of epistomology. As I write about here, we are quite uncomfortable with certain kinds of knowing and fairly quixotic about others. Specifically, we attach value to the kind of knowing that comes from the scientific ritual, and distrust the kind of sensitivity that comes from experience. Anecdotal evidence, we have come to understand, is poor evidence:

by and large our modern culture is a culture that reveres science and reflective understanding as the only legitimate routes to knowledge production

Going for a run might make me feel good, but I only want to hear that from a certain kind of person. I want to be aligned with how we should know things.

The best example of this, for me, is the emerging trend of bayesianism(?)4 in common parlance. Bayes' Theorem describes a method of statistical inference that tells you how likely some hypothesis is given

  1. how likely you'd expect it to be before you went out and collected data; and
  2. how likely it actually is in the data you then collect.

Without delving into the details too much,5 it's just good to note that it's a fancy math theory that's been around for something like 300 years but recently came into vogue because the replication crisis terrified everyone into doing better statistics. The other important feature to remember is that the first part of the theorum in which you lay out how likely you expect something to be before you collect data is called a prior probability.

What you'll find now is that random internet people go around saying things like, "our prior was that the pink tax existed and we wanted to understand why women were willing to pay more". Or, "I had far too low a prior on SBF stealing customer funds given what I knew (and given what I could have known)".

Now, in these contexts, these people aren't literally talking about a mathematical calculation they did before gathering data. They don't have a prior probability distribution lying around somewhere. They're just using a fancy word for 'best guess', or 'expectation'. In the same vein, many others use fancy words like 'schema' or 'mental model' to mean the same thing. But 'best guess' is much worse than 'prior probability' for PR. Guesswork is dead. Knowledge production should be as regimented as possible. We're a scientific society. That's what we like now. So we do something like an epistomological makeover to make everyone feel better about the whole halting enterprise of knowing things.6

The complication as a stand-in

But this attitude doesn't quite capture everything. It's not entirely a self-indulgent way to describe trivial features of human experience. It's not entirely a desire to know things in the correct fashion. It's also a desire to have something to point at. Something specific, with a name and a shape.7

I once complained to a fellow academic about the old 'alarm bell amygdala' idea. She was surprised to learn just how leaky that balloon was. A newly minted Doctor, a speciality in psychology no less, and she had been travelling with this alarm bell motif for years. The most curious feature of this conversation was that this was not a mere lack of skepticism---a trust in the knowledge of the person who shared the idea with her. She is an ardent skeptic. All good psychologists are after the replication crisis. Rather, this turned out to be a case of utility. The alarm bell amygdala allowed her to identify a feature of stress that plagued her personally. It wasn't some mysterious function of the body, unpredicatable and uncontrollable. It was a mechanism that could be lifted and examined. It had a name, something unique, something she could point to when there was a problem.

This particular feature actually strikes me as a major reason for this strange obfuscation of the banal features of human life.

The amygdala problem seems to me almost entirely this. If our moments of passion are all because of this little almond in our head, then we don't need to blame ourselves for it. It's not us who are close-minded or over-sensitive, as we might tell ourselves on our bad days. No---it's our amygdala.

A similar example is our tendency to attribute problematic, addictive behaviours to the 'reward pathway' in the brain. Addiction is complicated and upsetting. Even our own normal responses to pleasurable stimuli can be a little troubling. Blame it on the phasic dopamine response in the mesolimbic pathway. It doesn't matter that this is just a very fancy way of saying that 'we like rewards'. It allows us to distance ourselves from it. It's not you, it's just your brain chemicals acting up.

The online fascination with the vagus nerve strikes me as a similar thing, but in the other direction. Our stress response is complicated and for many people, overwhelming. Stress is something facilitated by the nervous system. But trying to capture all the incredible interactions of nervous pathways, brain systems, and hormones is impossible. And trying to solve the problem of our distressing stress response can seem similarly overwhelming. But, we don't need to do any of that difficult work if we can just point to the biggest nerve and say that that is the solution.8 It certainly does seem to be related to the nervous system.9 So we do ordinary stress reduction things, like breathwork or grounding through ritual, and we tell ourselves that we're acting on the vagus nerve---the thing we can point to in all the craziness of the sympathoadrenal system.

To step out of familiar terrain for a moment, we can apply this same motivation to wokeness. The realities of societal power dynamics are horribly oppressive. Alongside various cultural factors that promote the proliferation of woke concepts, we also have the reassuring safety of retreating behind the abstractions at fault: hegemonies, systemic racism, white privilege, and so on. It's an enemy we can point at and maybe get our fingers around, rather than the enemy that is everything, everywhere, all at once.

The problem with abstractions as enemies

But this attitude---the near-personification of features of the complex world does have its risks.

In the case of wokeness, we have a clear problem of thoughtlessness. As Jacoby writes in his recent article:

learned professors are continuously gobsmacked by the most elementary facts of society. Society is hierarchal! The rich have more clout than the poor! The powerful dominate the weak! They repeat these observations endlessly, as if they just discovered them. Apparently, they just did.

And if they are surprised by these omnipresent dynamics, we shouldn't be surprised that it bothers a huge range of young people when it's pointed out to them in their schooling. And so the literature these academics produce disseminates itself out to a receptive audience. But it is at the literature the audience stops. The political language used to draw the shape of the enemy become buzzwords and the buzzwords solve enough of the problem that it goes no further. Indeed, given the relative absence of solutions in academic literature and the complex fractal nature of the problem, it would be pretty difficult to go further for the average person. So even though "Everyone loves diversity. Why not? As a human quality it is better than the reverse, homogeneity", as Jacoby writes, we are left with the obvious fact that these words are deployed very poorly, and with blunt force, to achieve these aims. This allows critics like Jacoby to critique the entire enterprise. Arguments for diversity are bad, with many shining examples, so the diversity enterprise must be bad.

In the case of reward pathways, our focus on shaping the enemy has caused us to systematically ignore the true cause of addiction. We ignore the vulnerabilities that are the problem, and focus on the fact that brains like reward. And in the case of vagus nerves and amygdalas, we end up with these demons in the brain. Emotions and the 'sympathetic nervous system' become malevolent children, roaming the body and causing unwanted chaos. This is all patently untrue.


Thus explained, it is a more satisfying phenomenon, and something one can be more comfortable sitting with. Perhaps I won't race to stop someone wiggling their ears to attend to their vagus demons with quite such aplomb as before. Wiggle those bastards if it helps you get a better grip on the world. Visualise the alarm bell in your head too, poised to alert you to lurking threats.

Just don't do that at the expense of doing other useful things, like recognising your good emotions too. Or that the problematic ones are a coping strategy that got you to where you are today, no matter how irritating they might be. Or like recognising that these 'demons' will never go away, because they are one of the faces of you. All that can change is how you work with them. Don't just surrender. Do the work.10

  1. Of management... 

  2. This is a direct quote from his LinkedIn at the time of writing. 

  3. Seriously, go watch that video I linked. At 4:10 or thereabouts Jordan Hall tells Jamie that after an 'insane' amount of failure, he eventually learned it was possible to learn from experience. This takes him more than two minutes, and is peppered with references to 'models of reality' and 'objects of enquiry' and that is the most intelligible part of this conversation. A more characteristic example happens at 1:07:20ish when Jordan describes a 3D cube of possibility space, then is prompted by Jamie to sheepishly correct himself---it's actually an N-dimensional cube. But of course the whole metaphor doesn't matter, because really it's all about discovering the homeostatic, autocatalytic phenomenon that can hold coherently within all the different ways of playing the hominid game. Five minutes more of this before we find that what he's describing is how humans came to be (evolution) and how there's probably more than one way of being human. 

  4. I have no idea if this is what I should call it. 

  5. You can do that here, which is a way better site for math stuff than Wikipedia. 

  6. Some of you might have noticed that 'priors' are particularly used by the rationalist community who explicitly set out to change the epistomology of casual knowledge production in a principled way. I am skeptical about that project, but not unconvinced and they perhaps deserve to use the fancy term. But my first example deliberately comes from without. 

  7. It's not quite the nominal fallacy, because the act of naming it has some intrinsic explanatory value here. 

  8. I don't know if I need to spell this out too, but it's probably not. All this polyvagal stuff from which it stems is largely unproven and more importantly, seems pretty unlikely. 

  9. You'd sure hope that a huge nerve would be related to the nervous system. 

  10. Not in a Robin DiAngelo kind of way though. Ugh. 

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