Top Stories

Taming the Lizard Brain

There is money to be made from stopping us from using our devices, but it might involve better regulation of our most primitive selves.

Apple’s controls to help us limit our phone usage is the clearest evidence yet that self-regulation of technology companies must include not just data privacy, but protections of our humanity.

Apple has included features on its new phones that turn off notifications overnight, during driving and expand parental protections. Google is implementing similar such controls.

In the wake of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data scandals, the so-called tech-lash is the ultimate wake up call. It’s never been more essential that the industry considers implications beyond the user experience in the race to further monetise our attention.

“If you don’t self-police, if you don’t preserve the trust of your user community, then you will get regulated. The downside with regulation is that government can’t keep up with the pace of technology,” says John Hennessy, the Chairman of Alphabet.

That erosion of trust stems from growing mental health effects linked to technology use, the scandals related to intrusions into personal data and the deleterious effects upon democracy from fragmentation into tribal bubbles.

The history of consumerism can be seen be as the growing sophistication to tie our primitive instincts to consumption behaviours. The father of public relations was a man called Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. The advertising industry that emanated from that has been adept at exploiting our deepest insecurities around status, feeling loved or base fears. This is stated neatly by one of the influential figures of twentieth-century advertising, William Bernbach—

It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.

The benefits of modern technology in democratising information and connecting humanity are extraordinary. The flip side is that our ability to further exploit our reptilian natures, the primitive part of our brain lurking underneath a sophisticated but fragile layer of rationality has never been greater. This is especially true online through the feedback loop of algorithms and human actors.

American venture capitalist Roger Mcnamee is a co-founder with other tech insiders for the Centre for Humane Technology. In a podast interview with the Financial Times, he says the rise of the smartphone represents the apex of delivering information in a continuum from the tabloid newspaper in the 1830s that appeal to our lizard brain, which is the primitive part attracted to instant reward.

Fatty food, internet pornography and illicit drugs all prosper from co-opting the same pleasure, neural pathways.

While modern neuroscientists consider the view simplistic, for decades the brain was seen structured as a triune where the bottom layer composed of the basal ganglia and the forebrain was seen as a throwback to reptiles.

The other layers include the emotional centres known as the limbic system and the areas of rationality known as the cortex, larger in humans than in any other primate. Renowned neuroscientist Paul Mclean who coined the term triune referred to the lizard brain as responsible for “species-typical behaviours” which arise in aggression, dominance, territoriality and ritual displays.

Maclean’s “Triune Brain”

Exploiting our lizard brains makes advertising more effective. Beyond advertising, however, those who better manage impulse control function better in relationships, goal setting and occupational achievement. A significant contributor to social and income inequalities are the variations in psychological frailties.

Some of the personal traits that we might previously have called good character incorporating self-control and restraint are especially important in today’s novelty filled world. British philosopher Avner Offer writes in the Challenge of Affluence that such novelty has never been cheaper and more available. But he also warns that prosperity speeds the flow of this novelty and it is occurring in parallel to the decline of what he calls commitment devices, the scaffolding that families, communities and social stigma used to provide in moderating the ravages of such disruption.

Amidst this wider social upheaval, enter the smartphone. Mcnamee argues that before the smartphone there was always a degree of inconvenience in the delivery device of advertising for example which allowed a natural limitation of its negative impact. But no more.

Research around smartphones, especially among teens, illustrate that it is a factor in heightening social anxiety, magnifying bullying and decaying the ability to conduct face to face conversations.

Anxiety and depression are spiking in today’s teens in parallel with a delay in adult behaviours. Teenagers today drink less, have less sex, have less interest in obtaining their driver’s license and don’t want to leave the house as often.

This is outlined in Jean Twenge’s much-cited book, albeit with a long-winded title iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

I should state here that I am not a firm believer in Twenge’s thesis that technology and smartphones are the major cause of mental health problems, especially in teens. This is also borne out in recent studies, one of best being this large sample of adolescents in the United Kingdom which showed no evidence of moderate digital screen use worsening mental health outcomes.

However, they can play a role in magnifying problems that have always existed, such as when bullying extends beyond the playground to crowds online or when problematic behaviours like gambling become accessible in the lounge room.

In my work, one of technology’s key negatives is how it normalises pathological behaviours. Whether you’re a paedophile, terrorist or self-harmer, you can find an online community that will help you belong and even consolidate your behaviour. I have patients who put up pictures of themselves self-harming to their online friends for immediate feedback and gratification.

But the heady mix of smartphones, algorithms and social media present infinite possibilities for co-opting our biological vulnerabilities. This represents a great challenge for those who believe that individuals left to their own devices are most likely to make rational choices.

Psychotherapist and Professor at MIT Sherry Turkle says in a media interview that “I feel that we have now created an environment that will distract us to distraction … email and social media allow us to give the press release version of ourselves … It’s an algorithmic view of life.”

It is now algorithmic abstraction that shapes our human interactions from social media to the transactions on rideshare platforms like Uber. There is a growing risk that in a broader sense that we are outsourcing some of the most human tasks like empathy to the algorithm.

A proportionate tech-lash is an appropriate reaction.

Figures like Turkle and Mcnamee argue that understanding our vulnerabilities represents the first step in modifying device design and placing limits on trends like micro-targeting, which can allow marketers to link products to temporary emotional states tied to social media posts. In doing so, the challenge will be to find an adjusted balance for the modern world between the rational, cortex elements of our brain and the most primitive, but powerful lizard base.

We are perhaps entering a unique phase in business history where those who inherit the Earth will be the companies that best prevent us from using their product.


Tanveer Ahmed is an Australia-based psychiatrist and author. Follow him on Twitter @drtahmed.


  1. Great article. Absolutely love your content. Keep up the great work.

    For those interested in keeping up with everything IDW: – Hub for the Intellectual Dark Web

    • Mark says

      Thanks. This is the kind of thing I expected from the IDW. For a group of people with a bit of coin, they have seemingly done very little together.

      I’m getting a bit worried the momentum is getting lost.

  2. donald j tingle says

    Tanveer Ahmed is an Australia-based psychiatrist and author. Follow him on Twitter @drtahmed.

    Ironic or what?

  3. Nicholas says

    And Aristotle thought writing was ruining the faculty of the youth. This is nothing more than de rigueur Luddite drivel.

    • Peter Kriens says

      Isn’t that a bit too simplistic? In many cases Luddites could be right, I remember X-rays being used to see if you fitted your shoes.
      The evidence seems quite strong and the case made is quite logical. The fact that many Luddites were wrong is not a reason why today’s Luddite’s are wrong?

      • Nicholas says

        No, Ludd was fundamentally wrong at every level of analysis.

        Every new technology has evoked the same breathless hand-wringing, we’re just seeing it in the increased pace of innovation now.

        And even if you believe the article’s premises, the conclusions are self defeating anyway. If you really think big tech’s goal is to algorithmically adict you to technology, why do you trust them to self-limit? Why wouldn’t you assume they’ve subtly altered the algorithm to make you think you’re not addicted, while still being addicted? If you share Tanveer’s luddism, the appropriate remedy would in fact be a slower moving government body that can properly evaluate the safety of technologies before you can become addicted (or otherwise harmed) by them.

    • Joe C says

      Nicholas the difference is that social media and advertising is hacking your brain for dopamine hits. You’re being tricked/used and it’s also inducing anxiety and depression in chronic users. This problem is a giant ticking time bomb.

      • Nicholas says

        In a world where 2/3rds of peer reviewed and published psychology and social science papers fail replication I have serious doubts about the magnitude of those findings. Also, candy hacks your brain for dopamine, but somehow we’re not all 800 lb. I really think it’s going to be ok.

        • dirk says

          I read about it in my newspaper. It’s too ridiculous of course, the idea only of the possibility of replicability in the social and psychological sciences (better: studies). Replicability is a condition (exigence even) in natural and lab sciences, not in social ones. And these social sciences, from he beginning on, have had this ideal of: the more we look like the lab sciences, the better, and the more credibility we have. How stupid can one be!

          • Strawberry Farmer says

            Okay, well let’s not call them social sciences then. Let’s call them the departments of social creative idea making.

    • peanut gallery says

      I think that’s overly simplistic. There is a difference between wanting to stop technological progress and taking a look at it and trying to identify problems with it. I’m a big fan of Neil Postman and his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” and his other book about TV news. He points out that TV and the ubiquity of it had positives, but that we should be aware of the negatives. “The media is the message.” The medium has changed, but this remains true imo. We shouldn’t turn off the internet, but we should try to be aware of how it can negatively affect us.

      In the long term I’m optimistic. In the short term I’m a little worried…

  4. Farris says

    “We are perhaps entering a unique phase in business history where those who inherit the Earth will be the companies that best prevent us from using their product.”

    Unique? The idea of increasing a products popularity and hence price by limiting it’s availability is hardly new or unique. Typical the product is marketed only to the affluent who are told of its scarcity which is used to justify an exorbitant price. The limitations of the product are designed to confer status on the purchaser. Many products are marketed as non habit forming or healthy alternatives. You can almost hear the elites sniffing at those commoners, “my smart phone usage is limited to four hours a day and I use the remainder of my time to save the rain forest.” Companies are in business to make money not to save us from ourselves. If there exists a plan to limit smartphone usage, you can bet there is a marketing plan to make it preferable to the alternatives.

    • G unit says

      And it’s hard to argue that’s a bad thing especially if tech is increasingly pervasive to our psychiatric health

      • Joe C says

        G unit you are spot on, the thing is we don’t really need all this tech either – especially social media as it’s just a fancy form of advertising and propaganda.

  5. neoteny says

    An off-topic comment (because I don’t know where else could it be made): I’ve just looked through the “Who We Are” section and I was taken aback by Debra W. Soh’s picture. Why is her forehead cropped off above the eyebrows? Such ill-cropped pictures of (alleged) criminals show up on Yahoo News; I think Quilette ought to do better.

  6. Fardin Ahsan says

    I think this article was a bit weak.

    It pointed out a common problem that everyone is aware of, that our very primal instincts are abused in many different forms due to the technologies of the modern world.

    But didn’t really give us any ways to overcome those problems, because that’s what the title suggested, but the author didn’t tell us how we can “tame” the lizard brain.

  7. dirk says

    The riscs of absence of face to face conversation clearly also is a feature of the Quillette site. If some people come with stupid, trivial or repetitive remarks, there never is a -boooooh- or angry face of a neighbour. Also, where commenters say exactly the same, or exactly the opposite of another commenter, without even referring to them, there is no webmaster or moderator that calls them for an orderly proceeding.
    So, the Lizard is also among and with us.

  8. Caligula says

    Well, the alcoholic beverage industry does advertise “drink responsibly,” even though they presumably sell more of their products to those who drink more than might be good for them.

    But companies that sell tasty, calorically-dense, high-sodium foods don’t (yet) advertise “eat responsibly.”

    Nor do makers of TVs include features in the product that at least require the viewer to get up and turn the thing back on every few hours (or at least display an on-screen warning, “If you spend your life watching TV you won’t get anything done!”). Let alone scream, “Put down that remote control NOW!!” when heavy use is detected.

    There are surely many things which, although life-enhancing in moderate quantities, become harmful when used excessively.

    So, although there seems to be something pathetic in living an exclusively virtual life while neglecting one’s actual in-person social existence, is there not also something pathetic in the assumption that without automated lockouts and such users won’t or can’t apply reasonable limits on the use of their devices?

    • X. Citoyen says

      Your last point is a good one. There’s nothing much gained in replacing a lack of self-control with external control. Some people would call that slavery.

  9. Patrick says

    Count me among the Luddites.
    The amount of time basically chasing advertising dollars has to be one of the greatest waste of brainpower in our history of waste.
    According to some studies we’re getting dumber by the decade, exactly why is not known, but letting our bell’s and whistles do more and more of our thinking is quite possibly contributing.
    Add the fact that many if not most of us, aided by our bell’s and whistles, our main, if not our only, contribution to society is as consumers is it any wonder we’re turning into dummies right before our Master’s eyes.

  10. Joe C says

    > The amount of time basically chasing advertising dollars has to be one of the greatest waste of brainpower in our history of waste.

    This is what powers the internet, advertising dollars. The internet needs to fundamentally change if we are to escape from the toxic effects of advertising, but then it would stop being free.

    • >The internet needs to fundamentally change if we are to escape from the toxic effects of advertising, but then it would stop being free.

      The internet isn’t free. It is a profit maximizing toll road filled with billboards. Corporate hands are out at every turn. Logos, word marks, and links are everywhere.

      To follow the “toll road” analogy, you have to pay to get on the road, pay more to access the faster lanes, every lane has been painted with corporate logos to the point that no blacktop is visible, billboards are so prevalent that they have become virtual walls on your left and right, the radio station plays advertisements in the middle of songs, and you cannot take the exit you want without paying yet another toll. Oh, and if you are driving the wrong kind of car, its the wrong brand, doesn’t display the correct message for your exit, your car becomes surrounded by one-way mirrors, where you can see everyone else but they can’t see you, or you are removed from the road entirely.

      But yeah, the internet is “free”.

  11. Patrick says

    The internet, at least most of it, is an illusion.
    It let’s us pretend to be intelligent.
    It allows us to kid ourselves that we are part of something larger than our own sordid environment.
    It gives us something akin to katnip to occupy our ever diminishing brain power in between bouts of copious consumption.
    Oh look shiny must have objects.

  12. But are not lizards happier? Maybe this is the great salvation for humanity. That technology advances to such a stage we can entirely abandon frontal cortex activity and repose in the sweet bliss of existence as lizard brains.

    • dirk says

      And with the further development of AI, AA, this well could become the reality soon. What will men be busy with in this lizard utopia? Yuval Harari: with drugs and computer games!

  13. Constantin says

    I find the article to be shallow in the sense that, while clearly knowledgeable about the amplification instant communication has on certain pathologies, the author offers very little by way of a “solution”. I do not see how a a company might self-regulate against the very fundamental way to make money by appealing to the reptilian brain more or less openly. This will be like the state self-regulating itself against uncontrolled growth. We are still waiting for that to happen.
    However, it brought o mind an interesting question: if a paranoid character with a predilection for conspiracy theories is rather benign if unable to communicate instantly and form a community with like minded individuals, if he or she does gain that ability – it becomes some sort of a threat. I am of course thinking of Mr. Jones (the founder of Infowars). It’s like saying that small pathological infirmities become catastrophic in the aggregate. But the danger is in the eye of the beholder and good ideas are benefitting from the same amplification. If technology is merely an amplifier, those who assume the task of regulating it are in fact claiming the responsibility of shepherding humanity and controlling it to an extreme. The fear of the exponential expansion of the reach of the human mind characterizes those who want to control everyone else. Let’s deny them the pleasure!

  14. I have been thinking the same kind of thing. These are powerful psychological exploits that can easily become pathological, with destructive personal impact, gambling is such an exploit. AI algorithms have unpredictably caused ruthless social homogenization. When such effects are noticed nefarious exploitation will likely be attempted. I’ve seen a social media high control group emerge (a cult). Will this become a phenomena of the future? Will a new religion be social media based?

  15. Pingback: New top story on Hacker News: Taming the Lizard Brain – News about world

  16. Pingback: New top story on Hacker News: Taming the Lizard Brain – New Content

  17. Pingback: New top story on Hacker News: Taming the Lizard Brain – Tech + Hckr News

  18. Pingback: New top story on Hacker News: Taming the Lizard Brain – Latest news

  19. Pingback: New top story on Hacker News: Taming the Lizard Brain – World Best News

Comments are closed.