Masters: "It's mundane and simple. He is obviously a [slight pause] very blessed specimen so from an evolutionary point of view he'd produce healthy offspring, so my prefrontal cortex is telling me...I should have sex
Taub: "Oh, is that all?"
Masters: "Yes, my rational brain knows he's a hillbilly and an idiot."
Taub: "And yet somehow your rational brain is losing the argument, which is interesting."
(Out of the Chute Season 7, Episode 16)
In this episode, we find Masters tempted way beyond her better judgment by a hospital patient, a bullrider by profession, a man who is in her words a "very blessed specimen" physically. These yearnings don't go unnoticed by Taub, but when he forces her into a corner, he can't quite manage to provoke the sense of mortification he was surely hoping for. Instead, Masters neutralizes him with a measured explanation, an unbiased, totally cerebral, and somewhat unflattering portrayal of the way she thinks her mind works.
It's an interesting account. What she's essentially saying is that she's conflicted in the specific sense that two separate parts of her brain - her "rational brain" and another part that she identifies as the prefrontal cortex - are duking it out for control over her behavior. She seems to believe that this is what happens when we subjectively experience weakness of will, what Plato called akrasia, or "lacking command (over oneself)." We know we shouldn't have x, that in the long term (maybe even in the short term) x is bad for us. And yet, we are inexorably drawn to x. In Master's case, x is obviously the bullrider patient. Consciously, she was repulsed by him, but her behavior betrayed a different side of her that wasn't so repulsed. In her (presumably) sweaty palms and fixed gaze, she exhibited the unmistakable signs of attraction.
Masters had a classic case of akrasia, a phenomenon that's by no means limited to our love interests. In other cases, people may fail to resist tempting foods when they know they're trying to lose weight, party when they should be studying, or punch their boss in the face when he "forgets" their Christmas bonus. When we consciously know what the better alternative is, why can't we just consciously say "no," and that's the end of the story? Why do we experience akrasia?
Masters thinks she knows the answer. Earlier, she described her brain as a divided entity experiencing a civil war of sorts, animal urges versus deliberate reasoning. Is there any truth in Masters' characterization of how the brain works? Without prolonging the suspense, the answer is yes, she is generally on the right track, but a bit crossed-up on the details. In the main, Masters' account is consistent with the way many psychologists and biologists view our mental workings.
To understand why this is so, we have to consider the brain from a developmental point of view, and in particular the manner in which it has developed over the course of human evolutionary history. Millions of years ago, human brains very closely resembled animal brains; we didn't think or act very differently from animals. But over 5 million years of evolution, the human brain grew much bigger, roughly tripling in size. Viewed proportionally, however, that overall growth was meager compared to the expansion that occurred in one specific brain region, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This part of the brain increased in size six fold over the same period of time. Hence, the PFC now accounts for a much larger proportion of the whole human brain than it did back in the day.
The advantage of having a ginormous PFC - the capacity for conscious thought - is generally pretty well-comprehended and well-appreciated. That disproportional increase in PFC size brought with it the ability to ponder future consequences, pursue long-term goals, and control impulses. These sorts of very non-animal aptitudes are collectively referred-to as executive function.
The problem is, though we gained executive function through the disproportional development of the PFC, we never lost the more evolutionarily ancient part of the brain, what I will for simplicity's sake refer to as the hindbrain. For our purposes, we can think of it as the "animal" part of the brain, generating instinctual behavior qualitatively similar to, though at times much more sophisticated than, animal behavior. It's also unconscious, in that we don't very often notice what it is doing. It handles a surprisingly large number of our day-to-day automatic behavior, such as breathing, but it also governs more complex automatic behavior such as reacting to dangerous, delicious, or (in Masters' case) seductive stimuli.
Actually, "govern" is the wrong word. Let's say instead that it provides the initial input, the first salvo in a discussion between itself and the PFC. Masters' hindbrain initially liked what it saw in the sexy cowboy, and it started mobilizing her in his direction. Following that initial reaction, it took a few additional seconds for the PFC to form its own impression, but once it did, it wasn't impressed, and it went to work suppressing the instinctual behavior generated by her hindbrain. It's at this point that we can clearly perceive that Masters had it backward. She mistakenly claimed that "my prefrontal cortex is telling me...I should have sex with him," when quite the opposite was true. Her hindbrain was in fact the one telling her to go for it, while her PFC was the one telling her to reign in those impulses.
Anyway, it's worth asking how successful the PFC generally is at inhibiting our instincts and guiding us in the "right" direction. Jonathan Haidt (2005) described the overall effort in terms of an analogy contrasting a rider (the PFC) and his elephant (the hindbrain). The elephant more or less goes where it wants to, when it wants to. If it were to see a snake, for example, there's nothing even a very good rider could do to stop the elephant from running wild. Over time, however, the elephant can be trained to a degree that allows for some genuine control.
People vary in terms of how adept their rider is at controlling their elephant. Some people are more impulsive, while others are more premeditative. Masters is probably one of the more premeditative people out there, but as you can see she still has trouble inhibiting her libido, her elephant in this case. This is an accurate characterization of psychological reality. Everybody struggles with akrasia; our successes tend to be hard-won. The good news, however, is that we get better at it with time and experience. There is evidence that the more successful attempts we have at suppressing our urges, the more we expand this capacity, much like we might strengthen a muscle through exercise (Baumeister, Bratlavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998).
So, it seems there is hope after all for hopeless romantics such as Masters. We've also seen that, apart from a small misnomer, her understanding of the situation is commendably accurate. This wisdom does not, however, prevent her rational brain from ultimately "losing the argument," as Taub points out with relish. Even worse, she eventually gets rejected by her would-be Romeo, which is too bad, because otherwise she might have had a nice ride off into the sunset.
Ted Cascio is co-editor of House & Psychology (John Wiley & Sons).
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