The Brutish Brain

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'Symphony' paintingRecently an intriguing paper came to our attention,1 which summarizes research done in Germany. It's not clear when the summary was prepared, although friends have helped us to track down a German web page that has a similar summary.2 If any of you are able to find links to any of the underlying research, we'd be very grateful. Here's an account of what the article said, with some our own thoughts about its possible implications.

For decades German scientists have been measuring the sensitivity of human senses in 4,000-person groups using the same sounds, smells, tastes, and so forth. About 20 years ago something disturbing began to happen. People's senses were measurably becoming...deadened. Or, to put it more accurately, people's brains began responding only to the stronger stimuli.

Sounds that earlier subjects could hear, later subjects could no longer hear. Tastes and smells that were once perceived as enjoyable no longer were; they weren't intense enough to register. Moreover, visual stimuli that would once have elicited strong emotions no longer did so. By the beginning of the eighties, all the senses were measurably affected - and the corresponding sections of the brain indeed showed less activity.

This trend is growing stronger with each generation. Human sensitivity is decreasing at a rate of about one percent per year. Some surmise that the human brain is metamorphosing in response to the constant bombardment of stimuli in modern life. This "fast brain," as it is known, simply shuts many impressions out. As one writer explained,

Delicate sensations are simply being filtered out of our consciousness. This makes room for a multitude of brutal 'thrills,' as the especially strong stimuli are called.

The fast brain is also processing things differently. It is reducing cross-linkages. For example, it doesn't bother to connect, say, visual images with the emotional centers of the brain in ways that older brains did.3 The fast brain can recognize visual cues more rapidly than ever because such stimuli go directly to the visual center. In this way the fast brain adapts to the massive overload of conflicting information more rapidly and with less emotional turmoil. But it may also do so at the expense of feelings that were once considered normal in connection with shocking visual images - like compassion.

Do you have a dinosaur brain?

Although the brain's physical structure hasn't changed (yet), scientists have been able to peg the changes in how the brain operates to generations:

Whoever was born before 1949 seems to have an 'old' brain. Whoever was born between 1949 and 1969 has a modified old brain. And whoever was born after 1969 has a new brain.

dinosaurOlder brains tend to like to synthesize information, while the newer models absorb conflicting bits of information concurrently and independently of each other. What would once have been called a (pathological?) division of consciousness is now the norm.

Those whose brains have not adapted in this way are predicted to drown in a flood of media stimuli that cannot be unified. Philosopher Gert Gerken calls this adaptation the "new indifference." The brain makes no effort to bring contradictory bits of information into any kind of a relationship with each other. It is a form of self-imposed unconsciousness. That is, the brain processes more and more information, but allows less and less of it through to our awareness for analysis. Instead of rising to the occasion, the brain is narrowing our perception in order to cope with all the impressions it receives.

Shifting sensuality

For one thing, sensuality is shifting in the average brain. Subtleties that once enriched intimacy are lost. As Munich psychologist Henner Ertel says,

Red is no longer red. Sweet smells begin to stink. Sex isn't fun anymore. In the next century, different people will be living in a new world.

The new brain evaluates smells differently than an old brain. In Germany proposals of marriage were often made under the blossoms of chestnut trees because of the sensual, sperm-like smell of the blossoms. New brains no longer find this scent enjoyable.

The physical stimuli have not changed, and the human body picks them up with the same nerve impulses. However, the enjoyment value changes because the brain is interpreting the stimuli differently. In effect, the sensitivity of the brain has declined.

Sadly, this translates into less enjoyment. Using a complex enjoyment index, German scientists have observed a steady decline in overall enjoyment of (brain reaction to) food.

In 1971, the average German enjoyment-value-index was at 154 points, ten years later at 150. Today, it has dropped to 143 points. Women are typically 5 points higher than men on average. People over the age of forty show less change than those under forty. Those belonging to the 'higher' social circles have a lower enjoyment-value-index than those belonging to the socially 'lower' classes.

symphonyWhereas subjects could distinguish over 300,000 sounds 15 years ago, they now only distinguish 180,000. Indeed some children only distinguish 100,000. These may be too few to allow the children to appreciate the subtle wonders of classical music...or a flirtatious smile.

Laboratories in Germany and America have found that the phenomenon began about 25 years ago and has been increasing ever since.

Implications for intimacy

The threshold for what the brain finds enjoyable is rising. That is, the brain needs more intense stimuli in order to register them as enjoyable. Other stimuli pass by unnoticed. This restriction of consciousness used to occur only when humans were in emergency situations, but now the brain does it as a matter of course. The new brain records the weaker stimuli without bringing them into our consciousness for evaluation.

1947 perfume adNot only does this metamorphosis translate into less enjoyment, it seems to translate into a hunger for more stimulation to fill the void of those subtle nuances that were once sufficient for pleasure. For example, compare the 1947 perfume ad pictured (again) to the left. The very name of the perfume, "Imagination" speaks to a brain that can appreciate nuances. The viewer of the ad is invited to imagine a story around the ad. Is she dreaming of attracting him? Or is the perfume causing him to think about her?

In contrast, today's perfume ad is intensely stimulating and leaves little to the imagination. One is encouraged to act, not dream. This perfume is also appropriately named. Opium is a narcotic, associated with a loss of consciousness. One might look at the two ads and think, "ah, the first is simply more puritanical." Yet this research about the decrease in brain sensitivity suggests that the truth is more complex and the implications more disturbing.Today's perfume ad

This research also raises an interesting "chicken and egg" question. Is this shift some kind of inevitable devolution, or is mankind bringing it upon itself with its media and marketing blitz designed for greater impact at any cost?

Are we being driven increasingly to look outside ourselves to intense stimulation in order to register pleasure? Is the search for more intense thrills causing us to seek pleasure in more brutal ways, and in places that we would never have considered before? A recent study showed that nearly 90 percent of the male college students surveyed over several years view porn on the Internet. About one-quarter of those said they had visited a prostitute or would someday. That group viewed more pornography, more frequently, than students who said they would never pay for sex.4

Will we one day, in the not too distant future, be unable to find pleasure within or through gentle contact with another? Can this be one reason why addiction is an increasing risk? The most intense thrills on the planet tend to be highly addictive because of the dopamine cycle of highs and lows that they set in motion. Perhaps it matters how we respond to the multitude of artifically-enhanced cravings for stimulation. Maybe it is better not to pursue them casually.

Can we stop the slide down this slippery slope? Who knows? I do know that when my husband and I began the Exchanges (the exercises for couples in the back of our book) he noticed a change in his sensitivity. couple kissingThree days into the process he said, "our kisses are beginning to feel like my first teenage kisses years ago." And both of us still remark on how much subtle, but profound, pleasure we experience even in mere hugs. They are just delicious.

By foregoing the lure of intense stimulation that vendors propose, could humankind reawaken to subtler and subtler nuances? Could those with earlier brains awaken to even more subtle energy flows? Maybe it would be worth finding out. After all, the less we require to enjoy ourselves, the easier it is to be happy.

  • 1. Translation of six-page article about their research, published by a Waldorf education organization, AWSNA. All quotations in this article are taken from that paper.
  • 2. Summary of the same research in German. See page 47 et seq.
  • 3. "Studies carried out by the Rational Psychology Association (Gesellschaft für Rationelle Psychologie, GRP) in Munich show that optical information is processed by the 'new' brain without being evaluated. When adults are shown the so-called Flesher videos, in which people are torn apart, their legs ripped out, etc., they experience pity, repulsion and revulsion. Most refuse to watch the film through to the end. However, most children do not have this problem. They only watch without emotion and only pay attention to whether or not the drama and plot are exciting. If it is, they continue to watch. If not, they go on to something else. That's it." (AWSNA article)
  • 4. Article entitled 'Power & porn: Toppling lives'.