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Psychology Reptilian Mind

Automaticity: Humans Behaving Like Machines

(Including Driving, Meals, Sex, and Work)  

automaton n.1. a machine that simulates human functions (e.g., a mechanized installation device on a conveyor belt) via preprogramed coded instructions. 2. a human acting in an autonomous and routine manner, seemingly without an external driving force. APA Dictionary of Psychology.

automaticity n. the quality of a behavior or mental process that can be carried out rapidly and without effort or explicit intention (an automatic process). In brain imaging studies, automatic processes show dramatic decreases in cortical activity. APA Dictionary of Psychology. [Emphasis added].

Introduction

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all. – Oscar Wilde

Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is. – Albert Camus

As the above definition of “automaton” indicates, people can simulate machine functions by carrying out automatized, preprogrammed routines without any apparent external purpose. “Automaticity” further describes the human automaton as able to “work” rapidly without any internal sense of meaning. Neurologically, this operational efficiency is performed with dramatically reduced input from the cortical brain areas: parts of the brain that provide us with cognitive awareness of our external physical world and of our internal states of emotion. It is as though a “human’s” automaton brain is saying to look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear, touch but don’t feel, move but don’t be the composer of your own actions.

It is in this dehumanized automatonic state of existence that most of us “live” an astonishingly large amount of our lives.

Except for one year at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, I was a working, commuting college student in Oklahoma. During part of that time, I drove several times a week between Edmond and Stillwater, a distance of about 60 miles. One day it occurred to me that I had gotten into the car in Edmond and out of the car in Stillwater without any conscious awareness, or memory, of what happened between leaving and arriving. The journey was not only not the destination—it wasn’t even the journey. 

A few years earlier I had learned about neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s philosophy of mind and his ideas about a “triune” brain shaped by evolution.1

The Quadrune Mind Perspective

Paul D. MacLean, M.D. (1913-2007), former Chief of the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health, developed the triune brain model. He believed that the human brain has three major “brain types.” Furthermore, he proposed that each “brain type” has different chemistries and specialized functions, making it difficult to for them to communicate with each other. In broad terms MacLean associated the brain stem with the reptilian brain, the limbic system with the old mammalian brain, and the neocortex with the new mammalian brain. He alluded to the prefrontal cortex as an emerging brain, which allowed humanity to develop a concern for all living things—unprecedented in the biological history of earth.

Neuroscientists have criticized MacLean’s triune brain as a model of human brain structure. But as a model of how the human brain mentally functions, MacLean makes an invaluable contribution to helping us understand how the great diversity of human behavior can belong to only one species. For example, it seems impossible that great spiritual teaching and extreme aggression can arise from one brain that has only one mind. It requires convoluted genetic, social, or psychological theories, or appeals to supernatural influences, to explain how one kind of mind could produce such different kinds of people. The triune brain model explains it all in natural evolutionary terms. MacLean is the Copernicus of neuroscience.

Following MacLean, our quadrune mind model says that four distinct minds emerge from the human brain. Each of the four minds dominates a different kind of mentality, or level of consciousness: a reptilian-like behavioral consciousness, an old mammalian-like emotional consciousness, a new mammalian-like intellectual consciousness, and a human spiritual consciousness, the last of which integrates all four minds into a four-minds-in-one quadrune mind.

In the quadrune mind model, the reptilian mentality is taken, hypothetically, as analogous to the “subjective” experience of consciousness “experienced” by reptiles. Also, the “reptilian mind” is considered functionally equivalent to the level of behavioral consciousness that we have when we’re infants. As infants, we have not yet developed the neurological capacity to produce, store, or be aware of the emotions or thoughts that will become available to us later in childhood and adolescence. Consequently, as adults, we are unable to retrieve emotional or cognitive memories from infancy. The four mind theory better explains infantile, or childhood, amnesia than the current one brain/one mind theories do.2 Similarly, all of our reptilian-like “autopilot” behaviors as adults are experienced with little—if any—emotional, rational, or cognitive coherence. Consequently, negative effects of early developmental afflictions during infancy may often go unrecognized in adulthood.3

Amazingly, even in this primitive state of mind, we are, as automatons, able to complete sequences of very complex actions. Nevertheless, our efficiency as automatons comes with severely harmful social, psychological, and spiritual consequences. Behaviors come under the reptilian mind’s automatonic control in one of two ways: (1) the behaviors are related to life-preserving activities; such as, feeding, fighting, fleeing, freezing, or flirting; and (2) as habituated behaviors that were originally chosen consciously. If a person repeatedly makes the same behavioral choices in similar situations, then—over time—the slower, more energy-demanding intellectual (cognitive) brain shifts those behaviors down to the quicker, less energy-demanding autonomic reptilian brain—and out of “conscious” (cognitive) control.

For example, whenever anyone cuts us off in traffic, we almost always fume and curse and think they are the stupidest people on earth. Or, whenever we get hungry and finally get to eat, we dive into the food and gobble it up in no time. Or, whenever we have a chance to get “lucky,” we eagerly satisfy our lusty feelings. Or, every day we go to work, we resent having to get up, hate driving in “rush” hour traffic, and are rude to our coworkers and customers. None of these situations seem to leave us any choice in how we feel and act. Even if there was previously a chance to think and feel differently, by going through the same reactionary routine day after day, the patterns get deeply ingrained in our behavioral brain and become our character. We become an automaton.

Maybe we get the endings we deserve. Or maybe the endings we practice. ― Daniel NayeriEverything Sad Is Untrue.

Below are examples of situations in which our behaviors are dominated by our reptilian mind.  

Driving

Most people can remember the mental effort it took learning to drive. I especially remember being unable to back up our new stick shift car out of the driveway. My wife, who could drive stick shift cars, had told me that it would be easy for me to learn. I thought we were going to have to return the car to the dealer. Of course, what at first took effortful conscious attention, with practice, became unconsciously routine as my right and left feet smoothly coordinated with my hand on the gear shifter knob.

Nowadays, automobiles are becoming the “self-moving” objects their name implies. As with all technological developments, people are becoming able to do more skillful tasks with less consciousness of the effort previously required to learn how to do the skills, such as parallel parking or shifting gears. Consequently, drivers become accustomed to operating a car in a speedy and efficient manner without much consciousness; i.e., on automatic pilot.

Automatonic driving is not only life-threatening, it is also rude. I believe that many road-rage reactions we experience come from feeling that our lives are disrespected by other drivers. Automatonic drivers take the course of least cognitive resistance, leaving their trajectory to the laws of inertia. They are unprepared to slow down a nanosecond to let merging traffic onto a highway, or stop for red lights, especially if they’re following closely behind another driver who has gone through. They swerve to pass a turning car, mindless of drivers speedily following behind who do not expect to see a “suddenly” stopped vehicle ahead of them. As with meals and sex, reptilian-minded drivers are poor communicators. This means that they fail to signal for turns or lane changes, or do so perfunctorily after the move has already begun. 

Drivers who function at a higher level of consciousness use the mental energy required to maintain awareness of their driving environment, such as road conditions and anticipating what other drivers might do. They can drive defensively without the need to call other people on the road “idiots.” 

Meals

Years gone by, it was our Thanksgiving Day tradition to have a large dinner with three generations of extended family. Like many families there was general good-natured teasing going on as well as more serious conversations among the worried adults regarding issues of concern.

A reliable part of the traditional gathering was the turkey dinner with all the trimmings. As everyone settled into the meal, one member of the family annually observed that, “The food must be good, because everyone is so quiet.” I think it’s interesting that it was the most socially-oriented family member who commented on the silence.

The food was indeed very good, but that’s not why everyone was silent. Silence was a sign that the reptilian mind had taken control of our feeding behavior. Most of us can remember a time, perhaps at a restaurant, when we realized that someone was trying to get our attention while we were eating. We had been unaware of the other people at the table, the activity of other people around us, and even the food we were eating. I believe that is what happened at our family dinner.

It is considered good social graces to share in dinner conversation. It indicates that we have remained consciously aware of our fellow diners as human beings. We have not slipped into an automatized feeding fugue.

Sex

The Rat Race movie trailer makes 1960 morality look ridiculously innocent in 2021. (I have no idea what kind of future age would make 2021 look innocent.) In the movie, Peggy Brown (Debbie Reynolds) is forced by Nellie Miller (Don Rickles) to give her earrings to him as partial repayment of a debt. Miller slowly and chillingly further directs Brown to remove items of clothing to show that everything she has belongs to him. Miller was demonstrating that he had complete power and control over Brown. I turned 14 years old in 1960 and wondered how far Ms. Brown would have to disrobe, having had no previous experience with such scenes. 

Suddenly, I became aware that everyone in the crowded theater was holding their collective breath. It was eerily silent. They hadn’t had much experience with such scenes either. It appeared that the audience had become “frozen” by the sexually predatory scene. 

Psychologist Stanton E. Samenow is an expert in the thinking processes of sexual predators. His description of the characteristics of a predator is consistent with the quadrune mind model of the reptilian-minded person. Samenow states, “Sexual predators have plenty of sexual experience but it is shallow. Sex is a control operation for them. They ordain the time and place of the encounter. Seeking a conquest is the overriding aspect. The perpetrator cares little what his ‘partner’ experiences.”

Many sexual encounters can be less predatory, but still dominated by the reptilian mind. This occurs when people use repetitive, ritualized language or “techniques” rather than having a less rehearsed, more responsively engaged experience with their partner.  

Sex between more conscious people is collaborative. They are able to verbally, and self-revealingly, communicate with each other. Sex is not something that is done to the other person. Power and control over the other person is not the goal. The intimate relationship fuels the passion, but is not sacrificed by the zeal for passion. Even so, as my genius psychiatric mentor, Boyd K. Lester, MD, used to say (I paraphrase), “A healthy intimate relationship can enjoy a wide variety of sexual expression from romantic sweet-talking love-making to sweaty physicality when poetry may not be relevant.”

Work

It is in the realm of work that the above definitions of “automaton” and “automaticity” are most clearly realized: machines simulating human functions and humans simulating machine functions. 

This bizarre change for the worse of the role previously held by human beings is graphically demonstrated by Amazon’s approach to warehouse employees. Employees’ movements are continuously monitored by automated tracking systems. Terminations of employees can occur if the automated system of algorithms for productivity is not met. Employees are monitored for time spent “on task” and “off task.” Some employees report foregoing restroom breaks to maintain expected levels of productivity. Not only are human beings not respected as humans, they’re not even respected as valuable machines to be well-maintained.

A machine (the computer algorithm) simulates the role of a human supervisor, and a human employee simulates the role of a machine (a worker with no need for restroom breaks). Of course, this dehumanizing “rat race” is financed by the public’s need for speedy and convenient home deliveries of their low-priced essential needs, such as oral hygiene chews for petite dogs

Unfortunately, the abuse of labor cannot be redressed as long as billions of dollars from everyday people continue to fund the political influence of the ownership class. Also unfortunately, enlightened consumption is relatively costly and must be pursued against the dominant greed-driven culture of the United States. Under our current political and social governmental policies, only a minority of people have the time, energy, and resources to pursue such an “enlightened” use of their purchasing power.

Compared to driving, meals, and sex, the work example of automaticity has more to do with forced robotic repetitious behaviors, rather than self-unawareness of what the person is doing. Nevertheless, it is equally dehumanizing and many people go on “autopilot” in order to keep working. Such dehumanizing work also represents an over dependence on behavior (work “productivity”) for survival (continued employment), characteristic of a reptilian mind dominated life. Dehumanization should never be the price of a paycheck.4

Conclusion

The assumption that there will be enough reflective adults to maintain a free society is not to be taken for granted. – Stanley I. Greenspan

Surely, all of us have had “autopilot” experiences, such as the ones described above, spending some part of our day in a dim state of mind—just going through the motions without any sense of agency or purpose. Perhaps less dramatically, but to no less degree, the reptilian mind is briefly in “control” of our behaviors during the commonly occurring slips of the tongueslips of the hand, and action slips.

If we live in a pervasive state of automaticity, we will “blindly” continue our entrenched behaviors, even as those behaviors lead us toward a cliff. Automatons are not able to “see” innovative solutions to life’s challenging problems. Automatons in positions of power can prevent whole nations and, indeed, the entire world from enacting public policies that would prevent a dystopic future for all. Automatons are not “free” to think as a spiritually conscious Human being—the only consciousness that represents our true nature. In the absence of this freedom, there is no other freedom worth fighting, killing, or dying for.

People have been criticized for underestimating the consciousness of animals. Perhaps the more relevant conclusion might be that we often overestimate the level of consciousness of ourselves.

A Deeper Conclusion

How is it neurologically possible for one human being to treat another human being like a machine, and for the second human being to know what it feels like to be a machine? We can identify ourselves—and others—as automatons because it is from our own reptilian mind that machine-like behaviors originate. Human beings doing things that a machine is best designed to do: repetitive, scripted, unthinking tasks. The human qualities of affectionate emotions, independent thought, dignity, conscientiousness, etc. appear as obstacles for employers trying to get maximum “productivity” (profit) from their workers’ labor. The more the employees can meet machine-like standards, the more likely they will keep their jobs. But then look at what happened to John Henry.

Related Posts

Why Speed, Efficiency, and Convenience are Dehumanizing Values to Live By

Mindful Consumption

QM and the Four Steps—and Missteps—to New Behavior

  1. Please see pages 5-10 of the quadrune mind Study Guide for more information about the reptilian mind and the quadrune mind model of consciousness discussed in this post.
  2. We believe that the experience I described in the Introduction of driving mindlessly is analogous to what it’s like to be a reptile or human infant. That I can maneuver through highway traffic successfully without much cognitive awareness is considered similar to what it’s like to be a lizard going through its daily routines—or an infant’s “experience” of daily life. As such, behavioral “memories” in humans can continue to influence our adult adaptive sensorimotor and behavioral functioning without cognitive monitoring. This is also why cognitive-behavioralpsychotherapies may be needed to change and heal the pathological consequences of early physical/behavioral afflictions.
  3. Greenspan, S. I. (1997). The growth of the mind: And the endangered origins of intelligence. Reading, MA: Perseus Books. “THE PREVERBAL SENSE OF SELF: As the child’s interactive world grows more complex and he engages in presymbolic bargaining, his sense of self permits more organization, so that he can play an active role in his world through directed plans and objectives…. This presymbolic but coherent sense of self emerges as the islands of emotion, intention, and motivation that defined the earlier, fragmented ‘me’ now coalesce into a larger, more unified ‘me’ (page 68)…. 

    “Because the formative emotional experiences through which our minds develop vary so much from person to person, individuals differ considerably in the levels of the mind they master and maintain…. Some master only the mind’s early levels. They interact and communicate predominantly through behavior…. Others progress to using symbols, including ideas and words… but still tend to function in polarized, rigid ways. Others who progress further are capable of reflecting on feelings, dealing with gray-area ambiguities, collaborating and negotiating with their own and other’s wishes, and formulating values and ideals…. 

    “The question thus becomes not what human beings may ideally attain, but what each of us has in fact managed to create out of the emotional experiences that make up our lives” (page 164). [From the quadrune mind point of view, the title of Greenspan’s book could be read, “The growth of the mind: And the endangered development of consciousness.” Read our blog “QM and the Vital Difference between Consciousness and Intelligence” for more about intelligence and consciousness.

  4. Stanley, J. (2021, December 22). America is now in fascism’s legal phase:The history of racism in the US is fertile ground for fascism. Attacks on the courts, education, the right to vote and women’s rights are further steps on the path to toppling democracy. The Guardian. “Fascist propaganda takes place in the US in already fertile ground – decades of racial strife has led to the United States having by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. A police militarized to address the wounds of racial inequities by violence, and a recent history of unsuccessful imperial wars have made us susceptible to a narrative of national humiliation by enemies both internal and external. As WEB Du Bois showed in his 1935 masterwork Black Reconstruction, there is a long history of business elites backing racism and fascism out of self-interest, to divide the working class and thereby destroy the labor movement….” [This article provides a comprehensive evaluation of the contribution many capitalists (i.e., the ownership class and their managers) have made to America’s pervasive culture of dehumanization for financial advantage and to the deep tradition of American fascism].

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