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The Animal In The Mirror
Man will become better when you show him what he is like.
The Animal in The Author
I am an animal. When I look in the mirror that is what I should see looking back at me. Unfortunately I just see me. And I bet you have the same problem.
If it is any consolation, we are not alone. Celebrities, royals, politicians, doctors, clergy, sportsmen, professors… they are animals too. So you might think being an animal is not so bad. Not so fast. This is only the second paragraph.
This book is about one essential truth about human beings: even though we like to think we are all unique, we are all the same and we all behave in predictably the same ways. And more importantly — our thoughts and actions are chosen by our survival instinct, and not by our intelligence.
While we may all look and sound different, and while we may all be free to make our own choices, our uniqueness is essentially only skin deep. Beneath the trappings of our everyday exteriors, there lives at our core an instinctive animal, and its only concern is survival.
Knowing this is not simply important, it is essential if we hope to evolve as a species. Unfortunately, we usually refuse to see it, believing we are already evolved and that this simple, instinct-based idea is a gross (and therefore inaccurate) over-simplification. As a result, most of us do not recognize that we are almost always under the influence of our instinct, which is every bit as smart as we are. We are carried along by its current even as we think we are leading our lives intelligently.
In reality, we are animals first and humans second. When we make a choice, we choose the option that will make us feel the most safe. In everyday life, we do not stop and evaluate every thought and action against cold logic and reason before deciding something, though that is precisely what we think we do. Instead, we simply react, making quick decisions — thinking with our emotions. And because we are all built the same way, we all tend to manifest the same behaviors as a result. This is why stereotypes exist, and also how psychologists are able to classify and diagnose mental states.
With few exceptions, we all respond in the same ways to the same situations, as the examples throughout this book will illustrate. Even our bodies react to things in the same ways, which is why we all exhibit the same set of body language and facial expressions that represent (and reveal) the same underlying feelings. In most cases, we could not hide these physical signs if we tried.
The basic truth of our sameness clarifies the reasons behind many troubling human behaviors, like:
why kids bully and many school officials ignore it
why Jews and Muslims cannot seem to resolve their differences
why religion causes division between people rather than propagating love and tolerance
why men and women struggle to understand each other
why so many marriages end in divorce
why so many abused women stay in their relationships
why uncorrupt politicians are so uncommon
why dictators subjugate their people and their people allow it
why so many smart people do stupid things with their money and health
why so many Republicans and Democrats think each other are stupid
why many people (ab)use drugs and alcohol
what depression is and why we feel it
Understanding human instinct gives us a window into our core, into our deepest truth. It provides a key to understanding just about everything we think, feel and do — to ourselves and to others. The remainder of this book will describe how this manifests in all of the important areas of our lives, such as religion, relationships, politics, personal finance, and more. But in case you feel this idea is too broad or too simplistic, the underlying concepts will all be outlined here in chapter 1.
I claim no expertise in any particular area, and I am by no means perfect. I have not suffered as much as many, and have not been as successful as many. I have lived on three continents, speak three languages, have been both religious and non-religious, both married and divorced. I grew up under an Apartheid regime and was there to celebrate its fall. I have worked with hollywood stars, billionaires, scientists, as well as fashion and music icons. I have produced film and television programming and started a technology company. I have been an employee, a business owner, and a teacher of adults, upper- and middle-class children, and immigrant children who live multiple-families to a small house. I have degrees in chemistry and music and believe in the scientific method, as well as in the intangibles of the human spirit.
When I listen to a musical masterpiece, I marvel at the sheer beauty that a human being can produce. This may be the best indicator of the existence of something non-physical, ethereal or spiritual. But at the same time, I am deeply pained by the suffering that so many have endured (and continue to endure) on this beautiful planet of ours. Life had better be worth it. Too many have gone through too much for this all to be pointless.
So while I may not claim expertise in any one area, I am just as astute a scholar of the human condition as anyone, since the only way we can know anyone else is by comparing it to how we know ourselves.
This book will deal in generalizations. Some people feel that generalizations are untrue (or not useful) simply because they are generalizations. On the contrary, generalizations teach us about how most of us tend to behave or believe, and while there are always exceptions and explanations, generalizations can still be quite illuminating about the human condition. As such, they can teach us about ourselves if we are willing and courageous enough to look.
Be warned, from the start, that you may not like everything you read. We will all be taken off our pedestal a little, and you will not necessarily enjoy that, but you should get to know yourself (and everybody else) a lot better. And that is a journey well worth taking.
The Human Blind Spot
The ostrich buries his head in the sand to avoid the truth he does not want to accept. Unfortunately, he is not the only species that does it. We humans are experts at denial and avoidance. Like a talentless singer auditioning on live television, we do not see the truth. We only see what we want to see.
This is not because we are stupid or delusional, neither is it a design flaw. It is how we are programmed, in our chemistry — our DNA, our cells, hormones and brain. We have a built-in blind spot.
We cannot escape our chemistry, but we can understand it, something we are not currently doing as a society. We constantly marvel at how this person could do this, or how that person could think that. Our indignation pits us against each other, and we continue to flounder in the dark. We insist on remaining blind to the fact that we are not only doing the same things to each other, but that it is also because we are, in fact, alike.
So what is this human blind spot? It is when we blind ourselves to the animal in our mirror, to our own flaws and primal motivations. Our creative brain spins a compelling story that places us as the protagonist, the hero. It justifies our behavior and choices, which therefore paints the other person as the one who must be in the wrong. (It is always that other selfish driver.) We always interpret things in our own favor in order to maintain a positive self-image so we get to feel good, and therefore safe.
The blind spot — our sense of denial — seems contradictory. On the one hand, our instinct should propel us away from danger rather than increasing the danger by ignoring it. On the other hand, we have a powerful need to feel right and validated, and to avoid the negative emotions associated with fear and danger. We may ignore or deny a threat or an unpleasant prospect, hoping it will go away on its own… until it becomes so serious that it cannot be ignored or denied any longer.
But if we start to understand this tendency, by yanking our heads up out of the sand and shining a little light on the human condition, we will see the reasons why we do the things we do and why we treat ourselves and each other the way we do — rich versus poor, nation versus nation, husband versus wife, religion, race, political persuasion, bigotry, greed, lust, etc.
Once we have seen this, we cannot un-see it. We are then wiser about ourselves and we become capable of elevating ourselves and our society. Unfortunately, we tend not to want to hear or accept new or different ideas. But if we want our world, our country, our communities and our relationships to improve, we must stop living like ostriches. We must understand why we fear, react, hate or love. We must understand why people do what they do, think what they think, and feel what they feel. We must evolve to the point where we, and not our chemistry, are in control of our lives and our world.
Let us now delve into the details.
The Animal In The Mirror
There is one in your mirror too.
The vast majority of us believe we are already evolved — wise, sophisticated and spiritual beings. We might feel the ideas in this book do not apply to our modern and enlightened everyday lives — but we are mistaken.
We have always prided ourselves, as humans, in not being animals. The Bible gives Man dominion over animals. We often brag of our superiority over animals. We can reason, we can talk, we can feel…
Of course, we are very quick to point out when other humans act like animals. Or we point, condescendingly, at the animal who kills the offspring of his rival alpha male, who might pose a threat to his dominance… only to realize that human kings have been perfecting the art for millennia.
Throughout history, we have run our lives and societies like animals, and as we will see, we still do. Of course, we are in vehement denial about this, and in fact, most of us believe exactly the opposite. We believe that we think about our choices and then make informed decisions freely.
Instead, the reason that our lives and world are in the shape they are in is precisely because almost all of our choices are arrived at through instinct, not reason. We are animals — not metaphorically or theologically, but in the literal biological sense of the word.
We are, of course, capable of being so much more than just animals. We can produce music, art, works of great beauty and complexity. We can elevate ourselves above the animal if we choose to. We can strive for the spiritual and revel in abstraction. And many of us succeed to one degree or another. But our default biochemical programming is exactly the same as that of an animal.
Human and animal bodies have virtually the same chemistry, basic organs and physiology. In fact, there are even certain animal organs that can be transplanted into humans. Genetically, we are far more similar than we are different — more than 98% similar in some cases.
So, by looking at animals more closely we can learn very illuminating things about ourselves. Which will also then teach us very illuminating (and perhaps surprising) things about animals.
Animals operate on instinct, and their instinct is shaped by two unavoidable truths about their world:
1. Animals Are Mortal
They can (and will) die, and death must be avoided for as long as possible. Every choice they make is towards ensuring their and their group’s survival. Their most powerful drive is to survive. It is chemically programmed into their DNA. Fight or flight. Stay alive. Even (single-celled) bacteria are designed to stay alive for as long as possible. They consume energy, eliminate waste, and reproduce their genes. The more complex the organism, the more sophisticated it becomes at avoiding danger, surviving and reproducing.
2. Animals Face Competition
They live in a world of limited resources, and they have to compete against other animals for those resources — for their very survival — and this competition often places their lives in mortal danger. As a result, animals organize themselves into groups. Survival is a numbers game. One zebra in a small group (or alone) is far more likely to be eaten by the hungry lions than one zebra in a large group. Or one sardine. (Or one human.) There is security in numbers. The weak can even stand up to the strong if they have the confidence of numbers (as the famous Battle At The Kruger Park video footage demonstrated so poignantly ).
All mortals who fear for their survival must join a group for protection — for security. This group, with its force of numbers, is “friend,” and other groups are the competition for resources and survival.
So an animal thinks in terms of “us” and “them.” The more vulnerable the animal feels, the more “them” are feared and the more insular and afraid “us” become. Animals are therefore experts at differentiating, because “different” is seen as a threat.
This description applies just as well to humans.
Just like animals, our bodies are designed to survive. The body regulates energy so it can maintain the right temperature. When badly injured, parts of the body will shut down, one at a time, trying to buy time for the most essential organs to stay alive as long as possible. Our cells are designed to replicate and repair damage, and we possess a powerful drive to reproduce. And so on.
Just like animals, we must compete for our survival in a world of limited resources. We must work or we starve. We also feel vulnerable because we are mortal. We also organize ourselves into groups of us and them so we can feel protected.
Then we compete against them until they are no longer a threat to us. Those who are different from us are seen as a threat, and since our instinct is telling us that our very survival is at stake, we will go to extraordinary lengths to defend our group and our resources against them. We will lie, deceive, and even kill.
Humans will reliably find a group to join — a religion, a party, an organization or ideology — because there is safety in numbers. Everyone needs community. If we do not have a group, our sense of vulnerability will become overwhelming.
We not only need to belong to a group, we also need to conform to that group. We cannot risk being shunned by the group because our survival depends on belonging. We therefore avoid any behavior that might make the group uncomfortable and risk our status. So powerful is this drive that some human animals will shun their own children or kill a family member for not conforming to their group.
Being in a group is not wrong or bad. It is a natural tendency and fills a legitimate human need. Just make sure to see it for what it is — animal instinct.
We choose the group to which we are already connected, or into which we were born, or the group whose ideas are most in synch with our own. Then, once we belong to a group, we will interpret and rationalize everything in our lives and surroundings to reinforce that our group is the right one, and we will reliably reject any indication or insinuation that our group might possibly be wrong.
Why do we do this? Because as far as our instinct is concerned, it is not enough just to be part of a group. It is just as important to be part of a group that will survive. We must therefore believe we are in the strongest or best group — the right group — so that we, by extension, feel both validated and safe.
So, on a visceral level, our instinct tells us that our group is in competition with theirs, that our very survival is at stake, and that our group is right — which makes theirs therefore wrong. We are then justified in fighting for our group, victory at all costs.
You probably realize that we are all part of more than one group. I might be a heterosexual American Caucasian ex-patriot-South African Jewish male who supports the Lakers. So I belong to several groups. Which commands my attention at the moment? Which is the priority? The answer is always the one that is under the greatest imminent threat.
If America were under attack, I am an American first and all other allegiances are irrelevant at that moment. If I am the only male at a bridal shower, my instinct is focusing only on the gender gap since patriotism is not at stake. And if it is Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, I will either be there or watching it on television… unless there is a war on.
All human beings have the same. We must all soothe our innate sense of chemical insecurity. It is chemical because it is a direct result of our biochemistry, the complex system that is designed to keep us alive. It is a system made up of physiology as well as psychology. All of our faculties are in service of the whole, and the job of the whole is to stay safe and stay alive.
Though we are undoubtedly very smart and communicative, we are animals in a literal sense, and for all of recorded history we have acted accordingly, with few exceptions.
You may be wondering where spirituality fits into this story. It has its place. Just because our bodies are programmed to run according to instinct does not mean that we are not capable of more. That should be clear to anyone who understands the beauty and complexity of a symphony or a Da Vinci, and the profound contributions of great individuals like Gandhi and Mandela, who led their people to overcome their instinctive inclinations at very charged moments in history.
We are surely capable of more, but that does not mean that we automatically deliver more. By and large, we live our lives according to our default programming — our chemistry. We react to the situations around us, always motivated by what will increase security and decrease vulnerability and fear. Our minds then dress our choices up in so many layers of meaning and story, to make us feel good about ourselves, that we blind ourselves to the real puppet master.
There is a very important consequence of this: If spirituality is your goal, it is only possible to the extent that you understand your animal nature, or else you have failed (by self-delusion) before you can begin the journey. So even though we do talk about spirituality and religion in the next chapter, this book is less about spirituality and more about its necessary pre-cursor — self-awareness.
If you do not see the animal in the mirror, then the animal is in complete control.
Without this type of true self-awareness, spirituality will elude you no matter how you dress or how pious you claim to be.
So how are you feeling about this? Uncomfortable yet? Does any of this conflict with something you already believe (and want to continue believing)? If so, your mind has been organizing the arguments against what you have been reading while you have been reading it. (And it will continue to do so as you read on. Assuming you read on.)
Most people believe that emotions come from our intelligence: we think about things, and what they mean to us, and then we feel about them, based on our thinking.
But that is not the case. In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite. Emotions come from survival instinct, not intellect.
Emotions are visceral. They are reactions to the world around us. And they are designed to help us survive.
Emotions are our survival instinct’s alert system. They tell us how secure or insecure our instinct is “feeling.” When we feel threatened or vulnerable, we will experience a negative emotion like anxiety, fear, anger or hate. When we feel happy, content, or at peace, it is because we feel secure at that moment.
This is a very important distinction. We live our lives almost entirely based on how we feel about things, so recognizing it can be extremely empowering.
Whenever we feel emotions, our brains make up stories about what they mean. These include any rationalization or denial, any conveniently selected fact that paints us as being in the right and them as being in the wrong.
We all live under the influence of our feelings and our instinct. But knowing it — versus being carried along, oblivious to this unseen current — is the difference between evolving and merely floundering.
It is not necessarily bad that our feelings dictate our choices, because our instinct has become quite adept at identifying physical threats. We have evolved to the point where we can size someone up in a split second.
One glance at a person and we can tell quite accurately their age, race, socio-economic status, physical strength, degree of social conformity, level of self-confidence, degree of happiness, and many other intangible body language signals that may not even register in our conscious minds. In less than a second, we have assessed the person, and then we behave accordingly. We will either be open or guarded, feel either secure or threatened, either lead or follow, etc.
Instinctive fear can of course be positive and functional. When there is real danger, we will avoid it and survive. But our emotional health can span the spectrum, from healthy fear of real danger all the way to unhealthy and imagined fear of almost anything — of life in general. On that end of the spectrum, vulnerability has gotten the best of us and we hide from life in a metaphorical emotional fetal position. We avoid risk and exposure, and we develop a compelling story to validate our choices.
So the system works fine when it comes to physically surviving, but the more vulnerable or insecure we feel, the more we will tend to delude ourselves about what our feelings mean, so that we get to feel good about ourselves and therefore safe.
Evidence: The Brain
It is clear that an organ’s structure affects its function, so understanding the structure of the brain and how it developed will certainly reveal truths about human (and animal) function — our behavior.
Please note that if your “Creation versus Evolution” bells are going off, you have come to the wrong theater. Neither science nor religion can be used as a weapon against the other since they speak different languages and deal with different concepts. Science is about measuring and describing the physical world. It is based on physical evidence and experimental results that can be verified or duplicated by anyone. It has no tools to describe the existence of things outside of the physical “space-time continuum” (if they exist). Religion, on the other hand, is based on faith, abstraction, and subjective experience. It deals with spiritual concepts that cannot be measured or quantified in a physical sense. (Of course, the flip side of that point is that religion cannot be proven either.)
Science can therefore not be used to disprove religion, though many attempt to make an argument. In addition, while many scientists are indeed capable of performing good and accurate science, some scientists can be led into bias by their instinct and selective attention, just as easily as the devout, and they proclaim their superior justification just as loudly. Similarly, a believer cannot use their religion to invalidate science, for example those who seek to deny the validity of evolutionary theory because the Bible says that life was Created, Made and Formed by God. A believer in God, as Creator, would certainly also believe Him to be the designer of the laws and processes of nature, which science simply describes. And how much greater of an achievement is the Creation of a system capable of evolving?
We will look at both religion and science later. Let us now return to the brain. Scientists describe it as developing in three stages, which therefore mirror the three major groups of animals: reptiles, mammals, and humans.
1. The Reptilian Brain:
These are the deepest structures in the brain, the brain stem and cerebellum, which make the animal capable of basic movement and automatic actions like breathing. These are the essential functions for being alive, so that is what evolved (and/or was Created) first.
2. The Limbic Brain:
This is the next layer of the brain, and makes the animal capable of emotion, long-term memory, and learning. Emotions tell the reptilian brain how secure it feels, and moves it to react accordingly. It also causes the animal to remember an experience for better preparedness the next time it comes up. The limbic system is not only the control center of fear and rage, but also of arousal. It is thus, in very real terms, the center of the emotional brain. For animals, the limbic system represents a significant upgrade to the reptilian brain, and provides them with a far greater ability to avoid danger and survive.
3. The Cerebral Cortex:
This is the outermost region of the brain and is its most recent evolutionary layer. (Man was Created after animals.) It is most well-developed in mammals, enabling them to exhibit more complex behaviors than other vertebrates. In humans, who have the most advanced cerebral cortex, it is the seat of higher thought, reason, and speech — the things that differentiate Man from animals and allow him to better survive and have dominion over all other species through the use of technology and abstraction.
All mammals share the same basic brain structure, even though specific parts may vary in size, prominence, or impact. But the function of each brain structure remains the same. In both the human and animal limbic systems, for example, the amygdala is the source of the aggression and fear responses and the hippocampus enables memory. The limbic system governs most of our instinctive behaviors and reactions, and it is virtually identical in humans and other mammals.
The structure of the brain teaches us why, when there is a conflict between emotion and logic, emotion usually wins. Emotion trumps logic because it comes from a deeper, more fundamental part of the brain. The limbic system is more directly tied to our survival instinct, which is our most powerful driving force. Logic, on the other hand, belongs to the outermost layer of the brain, the cerebral cortex, making it a lower priority when (the perception of) survival is at stake. When a negative emotion surfaces, the fear-response takes over and logic is sidelined. This is why it is sometimes difficult to think clearly or make wise decisions when emotions are aroused.
These biological truths teach us two very important things:
Human emotion comes from our instinct, not our intellect. Consequently, the majority of our thoughts and actions are motivated by our sense of vulnerability, our need for security, and our fear of being wrong. The cerebral cortex just gives everything “meaning,” and plots and schemes and rationalizes, all in service of the survival instinct’s self-centered “safety” agenda.
Animals feel. They experience the same range of emotions that we do since emotions are triggered by survival instinct, and both chemically and anatomically, theirs is virtually identical to ours. They may not be able to make sense of their feelings (or suffering) in an abstract sense, as humans can, but they certainly do feel them.
This second point about animals deserves attention, so we will address it in chapter 7, along with examples. The first point deserves our attention first because it is the most revealing about ourselves.
If we understand that our emotions are an instinctive response, alerting us that we are either feeling vulnerable (with negative emotions) or safe (with positive emotion), it can transform our lives because it unmasks what is really behind what we do. Subconsciously, every choice we make is designed to make us feel safer.
One might immediately challenge: what about thrill-seekers who do dangerous things for fun and excitement? Have they evolved beyond this urge? Are they defying their instinctive programming? Certainly not. The rush of adrenalin — the flood of neurotransmitters they experience and love — is not unlike the effects of drugs and intoxicants (see chapter 5). The euphoric and anesthetized feeling is the goal. If they truly believed they would die, they would not do what they do. But instead they believe the danger are not quite that great, and that they are good enough and strong enough to survive the experience unscathed, clutching only excitement from the jaws of exhilarating danger. But thrill-seeking is no less a vice, no less an escape.
Emotion remains our most primal driving force. Whenever we are experiencing an emotion, we are experiencing our human animal.
Of course, admitting this makes us feel too unsophisticated, so we weave intricate stories to explain why we do what we do and feel what we feel, to hide our instinct under a veneer of modernity and complexity. We may no longer bash a woman over the head with a club and drag her back to our cave… but in some uncivilized cultures, men still "marry" girls who have not yet reached puberty, and in some “more civilized” cultures, they might put a rufi in a college girl’s drink at a party and date-rape her in their dorm room.
We do not want to see the primal in our modern behavior because these uncomfortable truths make us feel bad. But if we are prepared to look, it will not take us long to see this basic truth of human behavior in every nuance of every individual and community around the globe.
So, is our instinct running the show completely? Are we automatons, simply reacting to biochemical stimuli? Do we in fact have free will at all or is it just an illusion, wishful thinking, or a trick of our consciousness?
Renowned neuroscience researcher Benjamin Libet performed intriguing experiments in the early 1980s trying to answer this question. His work showed that what we perceive as a “free” choice actually begins as activity in the brain moments before we become aware of even wanting to make the choice. More recent research shows that brain activity leading up to a so-called free choice begins up to ten seconds before we become aware of wanting to make the choice.
Libet argued that this does not mean that we do not possess free will. It means, instead, that our choice is one of veto power over a natural impulse to do something, whether consciously or unconsciously.
By way of example, when a man sees an attractive woman, his emotional brain prompts him to desire her, to approach her, to seek the pleasure — and therefore the sense of power and security — that comes from dominating her. Of course, he must exercise restraint over his impulses and conform to socially acceptable behavior in spite of his chemistry. (Men succeed in this area to varying degrees. In some cultures, though, they sadly still fail miserably... even brutally.)
Libet’s argument seems intuitively correct because it accords with our common experience. Instinctive deep-brain processes motivate us to act one way or another for reasons of (perceived) self-preservation. Our ability to override those impulses, and even to redirect them towards choices based on values rather than chemistry, is the essence of evolving. The better we become at this, the more civilized and elevated we become.
The degree to which we are trained and molded into this mode of thinking as children is the degree to which we are boosted in the right direction by our parents. The rest of the journey requires us to maintain and then perfect that override system and evolve consciously throughout our lives. We must, at the same time, remain aware of the deep chemical motivations that simmer just beneath our surface, and their natural ability to burst through and take control if given the opening.
Real freedom of choice is therefore tied to our degree of evolution. The more evolved we are, the more free our choices become and the less controlled they are by our unconscious chemistry — by fear. The more afraid or “enslaved” to conformity we are, the less we are able to choose freely and the more we live by simply reacting to what happens around us, by mirroring our group’s fear-responses.
Put another way, freedom of choice and human sophistication are within our grasp, but they are not as built-in and automatic as we like to believe. We have to work to attain them. We are animals first and humans second, and that is what we do not want to hear.
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