Mental Model: LIFEMORTS

Interrupting your regularly scheduled broadcast of my monotone voice reading out Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders letter from 1977 onward (find 1977 here and 1978 here) – which got interrupted, first by a weekend of intense video gaming with a friend visiting from out of town and then by Father’s Day, but should be back on track starting this weekend with 1979 almost fully recorded – I recently finished Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain by Douglas Fields and I wanted to try something slightly ambitious: connect the main concept of the acronym LIFEMORTS from the book into the Trump phenomenon. Bloody hell that sentence was the length of a paragraph. My sentences seem to get longer and longer with each passing year out of school.


Why We Snap is a science book for the layman, laid out in a story structure with simple words and cute acronyms. The author does a good job of presenting the material on neuroscience on an easy to understand level, which might be a bit infuriating for those of you who are well versed in the field (I am not). It’s great for the everyday person, not so great as a book for the scientist. There are many flaws – such as the entire book being very oversimplified – but I think there is still something to take away from it.

The whole idea of why we have a tendency to snap with rage is laid out by Fields with the following acronyms:

mental model lifemorts 1

It’s very similar to the idea of the Amygdala Hijack, although Fields goes beyond merely the amygdala when it comes to explaining the trigger areas in the brain.

Notes from the Book

Here are some of the highlights I made while reading the book that I found interesting.

New research is showing that differences in genes that control certain neurotransmitters and hormones lower the threshold for aggressive behavior, reduce fear, and increase impulsivity in some people.

Note: ties back to the importance of temperament, and how some people naturally have it and some need to work hard at it.

There is a beguiling popular notion that a “reptilian brain” lies at teh core of the human brain. Its cold, lizardly logic governs the most basic survival functions of life; among these are feeding, sexual behavior, and self-defense. Aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays are purportedly governed by this neural tissue, a vestige of our long-distant reptilian ancestors lurking inside us. The violent outbursts and unconscious reflex to attack or defend to the death are programmed by the automatic “doomsday” neural circuits in our “lizard brain.”…This colorful confection, however, is simply not true… To neruoscientists the triune brain was nothing more than an attempt to conceptualize, simplify, and popularize some general aspects about the brain’s neuroanatomical framework, but nonscientific audiences and the media latched on to the concept of the triune brain as though it were a neurological truth, a Rosetta stone to understanding human behavior and emotion in terms of neural circuitry.

Note: I confess that I believed this concept of the lizard brain ever since I read about it as a teenager in Carl Sagan’s The Dragon’s of Eden, which is a bit dated scientifically.

The hypothalamus, amygdala, and limbic system are now understood as circuits involved in aggression and rage.

Note: regions and areas of the brain to be aware of when thinking about or dealing with rage/aggression.

Deep-brain stimulation in monkeys could elicit complex and purposeful attack behaviors but that these responses were influenced by the animal’s gender, sexual interactions, and social dominance within the colony.

Note: while we may have a general understanding of where rage/aggression arise from in the brain, it becomes far more complex how simulation of those regions can elicit aggressive responses as there are so many factors at play as to why and how aggression/rage arises.

See the rage response for what it is – a deeply ingrained biological process, critical to our survival, that is entirely automated but can be influenced by the rational, conscious mind.

Note: key take away is that our natural wired reactions can be influenced by higher thought.

The conscious mind acts far too slowly when confronted by sudden danger or other situations where violent action is the necessary response… Modern life is so alien to the environment and lifestyle human beings experienced in our distant past when our neural circuits evolved and were sharpened. The rage response equipped our ancestors to cope with survival in a threatening environment… But when these protective circuits misfire in modern society, irrational attacks on vehicles are made that were in some sense intended for mastodons.

Note: reminds me of a quip that when it comes to investing, it’s not massive amounts of IQ that tend to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The psychology of choking in sports happens when a player departs from the precisely automated mental operations that must be executed rapidly and accurately, and beings to consciously over-analyze the situation.

Note: could say that about a lot of things in life.

Rhythmic sound not only coordinates the behavior of people in a group, it also coordinates their thinking – the mental processes of individuals in the group become synchronized. This helps explain how drums unite tribes in ceremony, why armies once marched with bungle and drum into battle, why worship ceremonies are infused by song, why speech is rhythmic and punctuated by emphasis on particular syllables and words, and perhaps why we dance.

Note: hadn’t thought about this before, and it was underscored with vividness of the next paragraph.

Tap out the first line of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address using the fingers of both hands. Do it four times: “Four score and seven years ago.” Take a minute to try this and it will become obvious why Lincoln did not begin his speech with “Eighty seven years ago.” The rest of Lincoln’s short speech is equally rhythmic. His brief oratory synchronized the brain waves of those who heard Lincoln’s words that day, and the words resonated throughout history in the minds of all who read them… Lincoln’s two-minute address was preceded by a two-hour oration by politician Edward Everett, not a word of which is remembered. Lincoln’s address proved unforgettable.

Note: full Gettysburg Address below.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Note: this highlighted how important eloquent and flowing speech is for maximum impact of persuasion.

Aggression occurs among virtually all vertebrates and is necessary to get and keep important resources such as mates, territory and food… Almost all mammals are aggressive in some way or another… It serves a really useful evolutionary role probably, which is you defend territory; you defend your mate; if you’re female, you defend your offspring.

Note: important to keep in our mental toolbox when encountering situations that seem alien to us, perhaps like the deep south and the support of Trump in that area.

The amygdala therefore regulates our emotions of anxiety and fear… The hippocampus, located near the temples of the skull, is crucial for mapping our environment, forming memories of events, and learning the context of when experiences, including threats and stresses, are likely to be encountered… The prefrontal cortex, beneath our forehead, is the higher-level cognitive region of the brain that can evaluate complex information to make decisions and direct our attention and behaviors appropriately. This part of the brain is the last region to develop and in humans it is not fully developed until the early twenties.

Note: emotions are driven automatically, our responses to these emotions are what we can control with the prefrontal cortex.

Structural differences in some brain regions are associated with religiosity; for example, the hippocampus, critical for declarative memory, is smaller in people reporting life-changing religious experiences and in born-again Protestants, but a decrease in hippocampal size is also associated with other factors, such as depression, that could interact with religious factors… The size of the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is linked with religious or spiritual activity.

Note: interesting associations/correlations to explore further in-depth to see how much significance there is.

Studies on Tibetan Buddhists show that meditation activates the precuneus network, enhancing the awareness of perceptual and cognitive states that lie beneath the awareness of conceptual thought… During silent mantra meditation, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex become activated, but there is no activation of the cingulate cortex. This suggests a role for meditation in memory consolidation… meditation [requires]both “mind wandering” and focused attention to achieve the meditative state.

Note: interesting thoughts for anyone wanting to practice meditation/mindfulness.

Religion tends to focus on questions of meaning and value, which may not be available through analytical verification process… As our understanding of nature and the human body advances, religion and spiritualism are increasingly being supplanted by science. Indeed, our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history. We have yest to see how it will work.

Note: religion seems to be something that has been with our species since the beginning, so the move away from it is a something that has never been attempted before.

The brutal reality could not be more evident or more horrifying. We are the most relentless yet oblivious killers on earth… Human beings kill anything… We kill all other creatures, and we kill our own… $718 billion of the US federal budget is spent on defense (2011 statistics) [representing 20% of the federal budget]… Only 2 percent of the national budget is spent on education or on science and medical research.

Note: how we allocate resources and how we act towards other species shows just where our priorities are fixated.

Tribalism arises from human herding behavior, which in cognitive neuroscience and psychology describes the alignment of thoughts and behaviors of individuals within a group through local interactions rather than by being imposed upon individuals by central coordination… Human herding behavior is an automatic, unconscious neurobiological process, which evolved in the human brain to enable us to form complex social structures… Herding of individuals into groups is the glue that binds people into social structures according to national identity, religious affiliation, and political parties. In lesser matters human herding causes us to embrace fads and fashions – why else should men fuss over the width of their tie? At its worst, human herding generates mass hysteria, spawns gangs, and ignited mob violence…. An essential element of herding in human society is that individuals often converge by modeling the behaviors and beliefs of the larger group in which they are embedded… when assembled into groups, people can become unimaginably ruthless… Anonymity and the reduced empathy and compassion of individuals massing into herds drive cruel behaviors in groups, in which individuals participate in deviant behaviors that they would never engage in as an individual.

Note: that was long but I think it encompasses good thoughts on herding behavior and their implications.

Emotional contagion is also subcortical – beyond the rational mind. Our individual emotions rise and fall with the emotions of others in our group – be it raucous jubilation in a crowd at a rock concert, love among a gathering of people at a wedding, grief at a funeral, or a child’s tantrum infectiously souring the mood of all around.

Note: reminds me of the mantra I repeat to myself – don’t get stuck circle jerking inside of an echo chamber, it leads to sub-optimal decision making.

Connections to the Trump Phenomenon

How does all of this, especially the core idea of LIFEMORTS, tie back into the Trump phenomenon? Look at that chart listing the acronyms and descriptions.

I think any rational, objective person looking at Donald Trump, his candidacy, and the things he says would say that it is utterly batshit crazy. What’s so interesting is the groundswell of support he has despite the almost comical lunacy of his run for election.

There is a large base of people who are supporting him. It would be too simple to write off these people as dumb hicks who are getting swindled and hoodwinked by a egotistic billionaire, although there certainly are elements of that statement that are true.

I think if you take the LIFEMORTS acronyms and apply it to the base of supporters Trump has had leading up to his race for the Republican nomination, it starts becoming a bit clearer in terms of what might be going on. I borrow heavily from Chris Arnade’s writings and journalism.

Let’s start backwards with LIFEMORTS:

Stopped

The base of Trump supporters tend to be located in the center of the country, not on the more prosperous coasts. They tend to be white. They tend to be lower on the socioeconomic ladder. They tend to have less formal education. And I think most importantly, they tend to feel stuck where they are, impeded from advancing, with the globalization of the world.

These are the people who would have been most affected by the outsourcing and automation of manufacturing and factory jobs over the decades that once offered good wages and job security. They feel stopped in their search for good jobs, good wages, and job security.

Tribe

Feeling left out of the American dream creates a whole group of people who feel powerless and left behind.

There is a lot of shared culture, history, and experiences that is very different from other Americans that allows this base to see themselves as part of a tribe – a different tribe from the affluent and educated Americans.

Resources

Expanding on the gutting of the American manufacturing base, the lose of jobs that once paid well for people without a college education, has meant that resources are less accessible than in the past.

This base is also most likely pissed off at what they see as the bail out of banks and the financial sector with their money – resources being stripped away and given to others who are not a part of their tribe.

Order in Society

Connected to the comment on the bailout of the financial sector during the Great Recession, I imagine this base sees the bailout, and the outsourcing of once good jobs in their region as great social injustices.

From their perspective, politicians, affluent and educated “elites”, and corporate America has nickel-and-dime’d them.

Mate

This one is much looser, but I imagine having less access to solid, middle-class income jobs makes it harder to attract partners to establish a solid foundation for building a family.

Environment

With the perception that jobs are being taken away, people with no shared history and culture are moving in (immigrants), and less and less opportunity, this base likely feels that they are under siege and need to protect their territory and home for survival.

Family

Tied to several of the other triggers, again, this base probably seems decreasing living standards as a threat to their family’s survival.

Insult

People who do not support Trump tend to be well-educated, have access to the jobs in the new economy or at least jobs that require a college-level education, and lean more towards the left of the political spectrum.

It’s easy to look down on people who support Trump, see that they occupy the old, tired states and cities of America, and quickly judge these voters as stupid, hicks, country bumpkins, racists, misogynists, and a slew of other offensive labels.

Insulting people who support Trump with such labels and descriptions most likely just entrenches their positions and provide confirmation bias for them that people outside their family, their home, their territory, and their tribe are out to harm them.

Life or Death

Bringing all of these factors together, it probably feels like a life or death situation for a lot of the people making up the base of Trump supporters. They feel left behind by their country. They feel insulted. They feel like the American dream does not apply to them.

Voting for Trump probably is the ultimate middle finger to the rest of society, an eruption of anger that has been smoldering for a long time.

Conclusion

I agree with Arnade that Trump voters are not stupid. They may be supporting a stupid candidate, but that does not make the voters themselves stupid. I think it is naive to think that because people vote for a stupid candidate that they themselves are stupid merely by association. I think it’s more nuanced than that.

The factors I’ve briefly touched on above are several, but not all, factors that are playing into the Trump phenomenon. But I think they are prominent ones.

In the very least, hopefully you found the LIFEMORTS acronym both interesting and potentially useful when dealing with aggression/rage/snapping in the future.

Recommended Readings