- Find your pulse. (Travel a line down from the corner of your mouth to your neck. There it is.)
- Count your heart rate for 30 seconds.
- Now say the following sentences aloud:
I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent/mortgage.
There is $20 to buy food for the next week.
I can’t afford any lunch.
- Now, count your heart rate again.
If there was no difference, congratulations! You are ready for an exciting career as a venture capitalist or sociopath.
If you’re like everyone else, your heart was faster second time around. Depending on how good at playing pretend you are, maybe much faster.
On which I mush together two psychological theories, much to the annoyance of actual experts
Hey, you remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? It’s this nifty pyramid that lists all the things we need, with the most basic physiological stuff at the bottom and the most abstract at the top.
Now, in the other corner, weighing in at 163 pounds, is the theory of the triune brain. It theorises that we have three layers of our brain that reflect its evolution: the reflexive reptilian layer (aka the lizard brain), the limbic layer (communal mammal-type behaviours), and the neo-mammalian, aka neocortex (humans only, no flash photography).
Again, the most basic physiological bits (RUN EAT MATE RARGH) are the closest to the brain stem and hence the action, and the bits that can wonder about the source of the word “hence” are at the outermost layers of our brains. At the top, so to speak.
I bet you can see where I’m going with this.
Our basic physiological needs are food, water, air, shelter, safety, reproduction. These are the needs we share with reptiles, and our basal brains are pretty similar. Why wouldn’t they be? Same needs, same responses to deal with them. Mother Nature doesn’t change a system that works.
Next rung up Maslow’s pyramid is love, belonging, and respect. Mammal needs, mammal brains.
And at the top of the pyramid are the strange hominid needs like self-respect, mastery, transcendence. Concepts like that (and the brainy resources to achieve them) only exist, as far we can tell, in the fancy-schmancy outer reaches of the human neocortex.
The more abstract the need, the further out in our brains it lives. Nifty!
All very interesting. But here is where that gets really fucking useful.
Imagine you have three people in your brain.
The first is a crocodile. It doesn’t have a name, because it is a crocodile. It gets involved whenever food, safety, sex and air supply are in focus. The rest of the time it just lays there, completely uninterested. Because it is a crocodile.
The second is a dog named Sparky. She recognises her name when it is said. She cares about the pack, about knowing her place in it. She cares about every member of the pack, and will fight to protect them. She gets involved when relationships are in focus.
The third is a robot butler that sounds like Jarvis, Iron Man’s AI. Jarvis knows practically everything, and makes the plans, the predictions, and the analysis. Jarvis is involved when learning something new, when engaging with art, when predicting, when deep in spiritual experiences.
When we lived on the savannah, this system rocked.
Each part of our brain played to its strengths. Jarvis would plan the hunt based on his understanding of the prey’s patterns, Sparky would work in silent co-ordination with the other hunters, and the crocodile would kill the shit out of the prey so it could eat.
But we don’t live on the savannah now.
We live in condos.
We get food from supermarkets, not strategic bludgeoning.
But… the crocodile is still the crocodile.
Whenever food, sex or oxygen are in discussion, the crocodile will be interested.
And when food, sex, or oxygen are threatened, the crocodile will be doing its damndest to run the show.
When dealing with savannah threats, this makes perfect sense. RARGH SMASH RUN KILL is a perfect response to a tiger.
But when dealing with an overdue electricity bill? The crocodile senses a security threat (DARKNESS! COLD!) and demands to be involved. But the crocodile only has seven words in its vocabulary, all of them verbs. What you need is Jarvis, who can balance a budget. And maybe Sparky, who can make friends with the collections guy.
The crocodile is of practically no use in most of our current survival threats, but as soon as it senses a threat it will be contributing. A lot.
Which is why money isn’t just money.
As a shared hallucination, all money looks the same: bits of paper and plastic and shiny coiny things.
But the things the money represents are very, very, very different.
Jarvis thinks of money in abstract terms; in fact, he’s the only one capable of it. Jarvis is the rational actor that economists blither about, able to think of returns on investment, of opportunity costs, of investments.
But Jarvis, physiologically, is the furthest away from the action. Closest is the crocodile.
It understands money the same way it understands tigers.
Tiger money is the money of survival.
It’s the money that buys food, water, shelter, protection from the elements. Possibly medications, electricity, and a few other things that represent security.
When that money is present, the crocodile is calm. As soon as next week’s rent is at risk, the crocodile is going to be very, very active.
Terrible Problem #1: The crocodile will take all focus and energy away from Jarvis, who is the one most likely to be able to figure out how to get more money before the rent is due.
Terrible Problem #2: The crocodile will never understand sentences like, “We need to follow up on that unpaid invoice, and this would be easier if you would shut the fuck up, crocodile.”
Terrible Problem #3: The crocodile will also not understand concepts like ethics, legalities, or brand consistency. The crocodile will just jump on anything that looks food-like and try to eat it. It’s Jarvis and Sparky who’ll have the indigestion later.
When tiger money is at risk, the crocodile WILL get involved.
And it will make things worse. Guaranteed.
You can manage this, with mindfulness and preparation and friends who will stop you from doing anything too stupid.
But it’s infinitely easier if the tiger money is never at risk. Keep that fucker sleeping.
We’ll talk about how to do that next time.
For now, does this make sense? Have I enraged the spirits of two noted scientists? Come tell me in the comments.