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Tim's Mammalian Brain

Heaven forbid we should make a rational choice. Because, of course, rational, counter-intuitive thinking has never gotten us anywhere. Not anywhere that we remember, at least, while our lizard-brains are in charge. It might be worthwhile, though, to remember that for the last few ten-million years, the mammals have been in charge.

Jennifer Loviglio wants an SUV. She wants it because she wants to feel safe:

.... I want an SUV. I want to be safe. Last month I totaled my old Volvo in a scary accident, and at that moment everything changed.

It was late afternoon and the weather was fine --- dry roads, good visibility. I was driving along East Avenue and without warning a young driver in a Honda made an illegal left across traffic. I hit the brakes but it was too late. The awful metal smash. The explosion of airbags with their acrid smoke and debris. My son screaming in the backseat.

The car lurched onto the sidewalk and we got out fast. No one was hurt. ....

... and yet, she still wants her SUV.

She's test driven them, and she felt that tendency to roll over; she felt it as even more pronounced in the full-sized SUV, but she still wants "8,600 pounds of metal between my boys and the other cars."

She wants those 8,600 pounds because she wants to feel safe, not because she wants to be safe. In fact, she knows she'll be less safe:

In larger SUVs, that top-heavy pull is even stronger. And yet, even though I know better, it does feel safe up there. A couple of years ago, in a New Yorker article about SUVs by Malcolm Gladwell, an industry expert pointed out that this paradox is common. On an intellectual level people know taller vehicles have a greater chance of a rollover, but on what he calls the "reptilian level," consumers think "if I am bigger and taller I'm safer."

The article also shows how SUVs take much longer to stop and are difficult to steer even at moderate speeds, whereas sporty little cars with their better handling can avoid potential collisions at speeds upwards of 50 miles an hour. It makes the case that a smaller car, which could be crushed by an SUV, might nonetheless be a safer vehicle because of its maneuverability. Still, though, if I'm going to hit something --- God forbid --- I'd rather be in a tank.

Of course, the rational thing to do would be to check the crash test ratings for various models, or even just buy another Volvo. The first one served her well: The much-lauded Volvo space frame did its job, the airbags worked, and no one was hurt. And in the unlikely event of a rollover, there are few cars in current manufacture that will keep her family safer than a Volvo.

But this isn't a rational issue, it's a "maternal gene" [sic] kicking in. And we all know, don't we, that it's "crucial" (by which she clearly means 'forgivable') to obey the yearnings that we think are wired into our genes.

Which is to say, to be good and conscientious parents -- well, mothers, really, since "paternal genes" aren't under discussion -- we must always obey our lizard brains. Heaven forbid we think for a moment with our mammalian brains.

My sister went off the road one time and rolled her car. She was on her way to church on Sunday evening, with her two year old son and a bunch of warm pumpkin pies in the back seat. When her '73 Saab 99 settled back onto its wheels, she felt something warm and sticky on her head; but it was only pumpkin pie, and Luke was screaming that frightened but unhurt scream from his fiberglass car seat.

Luke is now 25 and a father of two. The much-lauded Saab roll-cage had done its job. The next day, once he'd arranged to have the wreck (which still at least looked driveable) towed back to the house, Luke's father Tim was on the phone looking for a new-used Saab to replace it with.

That was Tim's mammalian brain -- his "paternal gene" [sic] -- working. He wanted his family to be safe.

And after all, the mammals are in charge, now.


Jennifer Loviglioâ??s use of a term denoting a physical â??maternal geneâ? [sic] was unfortunate, since she obviously left herself open to a lizard brain association.

And so was the use of â??paternal geneâ? [sic] (at least in a literal, physical sense) to describe â??mammalian brain.â? It is possible that your sister, escoles, was quite rational by agreeing with her husband that the â??Saab roll-cage had done its jobâ? and that replacing her car with another Saab was a reasonable decision? I donâ??t know if this was the case, but if that were true, then would one say her â??paternal geneâ? was working?

Iâ??m no biologist, but according to the triune brain theory, the human brain, regardless of oneâ??s gender, consists of layers, the reptilian complex relating to physical survival, the emotional mammalian (limbic system or paleomammalian) brain, and the rational neocortex (neomammalian brain). From a Buffalo State website:

We have mentioned that all three layers of the brain interact. The layers are connected by an extensive two-way network of nerves. On-going communication between the neocortex and the limbic system links thinking and emotions; each influences the other and both direct all voluntary action. This interplay of memory and emotion, thought and action is the foundation of a personâ??s individuality.

The full extent of this interconnectedness is unclear. However, it is entirely incorrect to assume that in any situation one of our three "brains" is working and the others are not. What we can do, tentatively, is assume that at times one particular focus may be dominant while the rest of the brain acts in support and that education can influence which focus dominates.

As a side note, there are esoteric spiritual traditions that have recognized three planes of consciousness (or even three brains) associated with designations such as spirit, soul, and body.

I know you probably didn't intend to imply that maternal instincts are somehow backwards and unevolved and paternal instincts are more in keeping with the genes that made mammals superior. But you did imply it and I'm wondering why. I'll stick with my minivans, by the way. They're cheaper and older and my kids are safe. In fact, I think I'd take a twenty year old boat of an Oldsmobile over an SUV anyday. But that's just me and my odd brain (not sure if it's reptilian or not, but I do believe I'd have an objection to abandoning my eggs and slithering back under a bush).

Hi, S. R. Parke. You bring up an interesting point. Notwithstanding unavoidable situations on the road, your kids might be safer, regardless of the type of vehicle you drive, because of your "maternal instinct" (or for a guy, a paternal instinct).

There was an interesting piece at Slate (scroll down to â??Friday, August 27, 2004, Corrections and Camrys) regarding The New Yorker article referenced by escoles in his blog post.

The problem is that the sociological differences Gladwell later notes--e.g., drivers of minivans are more cautious than drivers of SUVs, so minivans do better in the statistics for reasons having nothing to do with their design--completely undermines the power of his big chart and the conclusion about nimble Camrys.

Well, c'mon, Sharon, if I had to stop and be careful about everything I said I'd never get to say anything ;-).

I think Jennifer Loviglio thinks that her lizard brain is telling her something and she ought to listen to it. I actually don't think her "lizard brain" is telling her anything; I think she really just wants to feel safe and doesn't give a good goddamn about whether she really is, or whether other people on the road are still less safe for her decision. I also think that she's pretty inconsistent in her positions: In one column, she excoriates the president for lack of foresight (which works for me, don't get me wrong), but in this one she dismisses consciousness of the larger picture as inconsistent with being a good parent. Well, which is it? (I have a great deal of faith that she could find a rationalized response to that question, BTW.)

As far as boats (or as my brother and his friends used to call their Plymough Fury III sedans, "lizards" -- short for "terrible lizards", a.k.a. dinosaurs) vs. SUVs, I expect you're right. It's pretty hard to roll a big rear-drive American car. I used to own a '76 Impala, and I prefer not to admit how many times I banged that thing up in the 6 months I owned it. (My first car...)

As for minivans...are you saying you have one? Oh, oh, Sharon.... (No, no, I should be supportive.)

Well, c'mon, Sharon, if I had to stop and be careful about everything I said I'd never get to say anything ;-).

Ah, as long as you're not applying for a position at Harvard... ;-)

I'll let you get away with it this time, Eric. :P

I think the SUV mentality is linked to much more than just an overriding of logic to go with the big cage that will crush you, instead of the smaller cage that will save you. It's much more of a "screw you, me and mine are gonna be in the bigger, better car, because we're that much more important than everybody else on the road," type of deal. It's a sociological link to a central theme of American society: bigger is better, and damn him who has to deal with smaller, because it ain't my problem. This attitude may well explain why drivers of SUV's aren't as safe; it's not just because of the cars they drive, but the reasons they drive them. People who are only concerned about themselves rarely make good drivers. Both the articles you and Peggy linked have the facts to support that assertation, I think. It's a pity neither author bothered to make that leap of logic.

As to minivans: I have 2, count that, 2 of them. They are both the same make, model & year (1992 Dodge Caravan), and they were both the best running cars for the lowest price on the used lot when we bought them. If I say they've got kickass obnoxious bumperstickers on the back, do I still need sympathy?

How safe you are depends upon whatever state of mind the percieved risks are being evaluated from.

When I was in the process of evaluation for adoption of my now lovely 30-something daughter, the social worker was particularly unhappy with my vehicle... a mint condition vintage low-rider 5-on-the-floor Datsun 280ZX. I admit, it "looked" scary. But as for safety, I've never since had a car that could equal the road control that I had in that one. As for it rolling over... that would have been like trying to roll over a pie dough on a cutting board. Ok, well, I'm not a great baker, so maybe that was a bad analogy. But for me, the pie dough rollover would be practically impossible, as would have been the rolling over of that car.

The social worker was adamant about the car, though, using the ruse of my inability to chauffuer my adopted child and her friends around. (Actually, the idea of being a chauffuer as opposed to a parent hadn't occurred to me until that point, but I now understand that to be a very huge part of the whole parenting process.) But I knew the real reason was... fear. A sense that the car was not appropriate to the parenting of a child.

At any rate, I capitulated, for obvious reasons, sold my safety net, and purchased a 4-door family car that was "more appropriate" to the occassion of parenting. One year later, in a traffic pile up near the airport, I was whisked away with a badly broken femur, and the only thing left on the car that was even remotely salvagable were the tires.

The "safe" and "appropriate" family vehicle buckled like a beer can in a trash compactor. And I bought it because of feelings of safety, and not even feelings of my own, but the feelings of others.

Looking back, my choices were a tough call, and I can only be thankful that I was alone in that beer can that night.


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