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Why “The Consciousness of Sheep”?

Image: Jo Anne McArthur

The name of this website may seem a little odd to anyone who was not around two years ago when it was launched.  The Consciousness of Sheep was the title of the book about the current economic, ecological and energetic collapse that humanity is hurtling toward.  Drawing on psychology, sociology, behavioural economics, political economics, biology, ecology, physics and engineering, the book explores the broad dimensions of our predicament, and the reasons we seem so paralysed when we have an urgent need to take action.

“Consciousness” concerns the realities of our working minds – operating far more on instinct and emotion than on the reason that we claim to use.  “Sheep” because, just like those poor creatures, our mental “event horizon” is far too limited to grasp the enormity of our situation.  Just as they believe (assuming a sheep is capable of believing anything) that the farmer is some kind of servant who takes care of their needs whatever the weather, so we believe that the benign civilisation we have created is operating in our best interests.  The sheep’s true fate, of course, is the slaughterhouse and the butcher’s counter.

What fate does our rapidly failing civilisation hold in store for us?

Below I have reproduced the first introductory chapter of the book, The Consciousness of Sheep, where these ideas are developed:

The Consciousness of Sheep

Book imageBorn between urine and faeces, covered in blood and slime into the harshest of environments should have given them some clue as to the fate that awaited them.  But despite the struggle to stand in the face of a grey north-easterly blizzard, the new born lambs are filled with optimism.  Their very existence – along with the existence of every living being – amounts to nothing less than a shout of defiance in the face of the laws of a universe whose every force and component seems designed to act against the preservation of life:

Were it not for the flexibility of one element – carbon – located in the centre of the Periodic Table, and able to bond with and easily decouple from a massive range of other elements, chemicals would never have been able to combine to create the rudimentary life forms from which every complex living creature now alive – ourselves included – comes to exist.

Had these early single-celled organisms not combined into multi-celled organisms billions of years ago, complex life would never have appeared.  Had the first vertebrates not evolved, fish would never have appeared and one day lifted themselves onto their fins to crawl onto the land.

Then there were the accidents: the calamities that destroyed ninety-nine percent of the lifeforms that ever existed, clearing the way for the insects, birds and mammals that we see today.  And the coincidences: the early Earth’s collision with the proto-planet Thea, which caused the 23 degree tilt in the Earth’s axis – without which we would have no seasons – and giving birth to a large moon – without which we would have no tides.  The very fact that Earth just happened to come into being at the hot edge of the “Goldilocks zone” (where water exists in liquid form) around a small and slow-burning star was a startlingly implausible stroke of luck.

The odds of being born a mammal of any kind are staggeringly imponderable.  This was always going to be a struggle. 

But soon, the farmer arrives to take lambs and their mothers to shelter.  Maybe things were not so bad after all. 

Robert M. Pirsig observes a bigger picture:

“When he was young Phaedrus used to think about cows and pigs and chickens and how they never knew that the nice farmer who provided food and shelter was doing so only so that he could sell them to be killed and eaten. They would “oink” or “cluck” and he would come with food, so they probably thought he was some sort of servant.”

If you have the consciousness of sheep, you believe you are a part of some exalted race whose every need is catered for by your servants.  The humans tend the land so that you can have abundant food.  The humans provide free healthcare, both taking steps to prevent you getting ill and providing the best available treatment should you fall sick.  The humans are concerned with your security too.  Although some among you are concerned about those dogs with their fierce looking canine teeth, most are assured that sheepdogs are only there to guarantee your continuing wellbeing.  And while some in your flock have questioned the barbed wire fencing that looks awfully like it is designed to pen you in, most are assured that its only purpose is to keep you safe from marauding wolves that would prey on the young and the old.  Only those of you with something to hide have reason to fear.  When the humans move you from one field to another to provide you with better grazing, and when they shear the wool from your backs, you believe that these actions too are intended for your wellbeing.  Some may perceive something wrong when they observe that there seem to be far fewer adult sheep than lambs.  This sense of insecurity may increase when the selection comes around.  The selection involves the humans using the sheepdogs first to separate the lambs from the ewes.  Then, once all the lambs are penned together, the humans select a minority that will be kept as breeding stock.  The rest are left to contemplate their fate…

Within a day of the selection, the lambs that remain are herded into cattle trucks and transported across country to special death camps.  Only at this point of real and immediate crisis does the consciousness of sheep expand to contemplate the wider picture.  Nevertheless, there is no serious resistance.  They are now so conditioned that, despite their fears, the sheep walk meekly to their deaths.  Within days of the selection process, the full horror of the relationship between humans and sheep is realised, when the sheep – now slaughtered, skinned, dissected and packaged for sale – are consumed by their human “servants”.

Of course, we humans are more sophisticated than sheep are we not?  Our breadth of vision is so much greater that we would surely understand what was happening if some other entity were consuming us wouldn’t we?

According to Pirsig, the entity which is consuming us is civilisation itself.  And yet we do not see it:

“[I] also used to wonder if there was a higher farmer that did the same thing to people, a different kind of organism that they saw every day and thought of as beneficial, providing food and shelter and protection from enemies, but an organism that was secretly raising these people for its own sustenance, feeding upon and using their accumulated energy for its own independent purposes. Later [I] saw that there was: this Giant.  People look upon the social patterns of the giant in the same way cows and horses look upon the farmer; different from themselves, incomprehensible, but benevolently appealing.  Yet the social pattern of the city devours their lives for its own purposes just as surely as farmers devour the flesh of farm animals.”

Pirsig argues that it is entirely moral for the needs of society to come before the needs of any one individual; but only if the goals of that society are driven by intellect.  Just as a good parent will refuse a child another cheeseburger because of the damage (obesity, diabetes, heart disease) that this will inflict on the child in future, so a good society will take hard choices to prevent people’s desire for immediate gratification resulting in damage to the whole society in future. 

Unfortunately, society has two forces acting on it.  In times gone by we might have referred to these as “good” and “evil”.  In Freudian psychology, society would be cast in the role of the ego, pulled toward virtue by the super-ego and toward vice by the id.  But these are merely ways of describing the way we – and especially our brain structure – have evolved.

Humans are not separate from nature.  We are not – as many religions claim – fallen angels; we are risen apes.  We did not cast aside our fish, amphibian, reptile and mammalian heritage.  Nor were we born separated from them.  Rather, in the course of our development within the womb, each successive one of these evolutionary layers grows over the other.  When modern neurobiologists look at our brains using MRI scanners, they pinpoint three key brain systems – in the centre is a reptile brain that regulates our unconscious biological processes, instincts and behaviours; wrapped around this is the limbic or mammal brain which processes emotions and feelings; and wrapped around this is the neocortex, the part of the brain that does cognition and thinking.  These correspond to Freud’s id, ego and super ego.  And while we may have chosen to pretend that our intellects (super egos) are now in charge of our behaviour, psychologists, neurobiologists and behavioural economists have built volumes of evidence to demonstrate that we are, in fact, largely the prisoners of our reptilian (id) and mammalian (ego) brains.

Even when we fully understand that our actions will harm us in the future the more primitive areas of our brains will easily overrule us if the promise of immediate reward is strong enough.  There is an experiment called the “marshmallow test” in which children are sat at a table on which is placed a single marshmallow.  They are then told that if they want to, they may eat the marshmallow, but if they can wait, they can have a second marshmallow.  Logically, two marshmallows a relatively short time in the future are better than one consumed immediately.  However, it turns out that the reptilian desire for immediate gratification is considerably stronger than logic.  So much so that less than 10 percent of the children prove able to resist temptation.  This experiment may appear light-hearted.  Indeed, there are some amusing video clips of the experiment on YouTube.  However, it turns out that there are big implications to this test.  Those few children who are able to resist temptation turn out to get significantly better educational grades, higher incomes and more stable relationships when they become adults.  And for the rest of us, things don’t get any better with age. 

These results are not just an amusing take on how humans process rewards or an indication of how to get better grades.  People can die when instinct trumps reason. 

Half of the people who smoke tobacco die from a smoking-related disease, despite most having tried to give up at some time or another.  Those who get the quick heart attack are probably the lucky ones insofar as their suffering is of short duration.  But most face a lingering end from diseases like emphysema, which slowly stop the lungs from obtaining the oxygen required to maintain life.  Anyone who has ever experienced the sensation of breathlessness can get a glimpse of the suffering involved in such a prolonged death. 

The growing obesity crisis is another example of our inability to resist immediate gratification.  Our rational mind-brain understands that over-consuming fatty and (especially) sugary food dramatically increases our chance of developing metabolic syndrome diseases in future.  Nevertheless, for millions of people worldwide, the temptation of another cheeseburger, chocolate bar, tub of ice cream or glass of soda proves too great to resist.  And it turns out that this is not just a problem for overtly obese people.  While around 80 percent of obese people (who make up about 30 percent of the population) will develop metabolic syndrome diseases, around 40 percent of people of normal weight (70 percent of the population so a greater number of people) will also contract these diseases.  This is because, although their inability to resist temptation does not manifest as massive fat deposits throughout the body, it does result in dangerously hidden deposits of visceral fat around the vital organs. 

Let us return to that 10 percent of children who were able to resist eating the marshmallow.  What is it about them that makes the difference?  It turns out that these children have a gift that most of us cannot access – they can process time.  That is, they can identify very closely with their future selves.

The overwhelming majority of us are completely disconnected from our future selves.  We understand at a cognitive level that we will become a different person in the future to the person that we are today.  But we struggle to understand that these people that we are to become are really ourselves.  If they become unwell, we are going to have to experience their pain.  If they are poor, we are going to have to experience their poverty.  If they are obese, we are going to have to struggle for breath as we lug their excess weight around. 

Nor is it only our negative future life events and situations that we cannot connect with.  Another famous experiment, in which adults are asked to choose between a small box of chocolates today and a large box next week, has exactly the same outcome as the marshmallow test.  Ninety percent of us take the immediate gratification of the small box today rather than the deferred gratification of a large box later on.  We simply cannot connect with the fact that it is the same me who will get to enjoy a large box of chocolate next week if only I can resist the temptation of a small box immediately. 

This experiment has important consequences for all of humanity.  It highlights a key reason why so many people stay stuck in unpleasant situations simply because they will not put effort into making change.  Again, we all “understand” this at a cognitive level.  For example, we know that someone who is in a poorly paid and/or stressful job would be better off taking up a night school or distance learning course than, say, going to the pub in an attempt to unwind.  Nevertheless, adult education is struggling to recruit students while pubs are full of people complaining about their jobs!

To most of us, our future selves are complete strangers.  Indeed, we are often more caring about our present friends and relatives than we are about our future selves.  And if our future selves are strangers, is it any surprise that we offer them no greater support than we would to a stranger today?  It is not that we wish them harm.  But – let’s be honest – how many of us would give up a small box of chocolate today so that someone else can have a large box next week? 

Of course, many of the issues facing us are so much greater than who gets chocolates.  An adult will not educate themselves so that a stranger can get a better job.  A drunk will not turn down a drink so that a stranger will be spared a hangover.   A smoker will not turn down a cigarette so that someone else does not get cancer.  And none of us will leave our cars at home or turn down holidays abroad so that strangers do not have to cope with economic collapse and climate change.

Our inability to connect with our future selves is a product of evolution.  Our hunting and gathering ancestors needed their attention focused on present threats and opportunities, and could not afford the luxury of planning ahead.   Indeed, much of the way we internalised habit formation was designed to free our senses and conscious minds to be fully alert and present within our immediate surroundings.  The more alert we could be, the greater our chances of escaping dangers and benefiting from opportunities.

This means that we are not just “now-orientated” in terms of time, but also in terms of space and social group.  I am ultra-conscious of things in the room where I am typing this book.  I have some awareness of the sounds and smells around my home.  I have some sensitivity to loud or unusual sounds in the surrounding area.  But I have no awareness of anything more than a few streets away.  Similarly, I care most about myself and my family.  I care about friends and neighbours, but not quite as much.  I care about acquaintances still less.  Some people will also feel some connection to a nationality or a religion or a sporting team.  Only a handful of us – Buddhist monks and the like – perceive the interconnectedness of all humanity.

Our here-now orientation serves to tip the Freudian balance between super-ego and id – or, if you prefer, the balance between rationality and habit – just a few extra degrees in favour of the id.  By an effort of will, it is possible for all of us to make more rational choices.  But our default setting is to choose instant gratification.

Unfortunately, this understanding was not solely the property of academic research teams.  Advertisers were quick to see the potential “benefits” to influencing our behaviour by using their knowledge of our evolutionary biology.  They understood that our here-now orientation could be manipulated to get us to buy more stuff. 

One important insight gained by the advertisers is that we are much more influenced by the promise of pleasure than by pleasure itself.   This insight can be traced back to an experiment conducted by Olds and Miller in the 1950s.  These researchers were using electrodes to stimulate various regions of a rat’s brain to try to understand how this would affect the rat’s behaviour.  In their experiment, the rat was taught to press buttons at each end of its cage in order to trigger an electric current through the electrode to stimulate an area of the brain.  One area of the brain was found to produce extraordinary behaviour in rats.  The rats would compulsively press the buttons to the point of exhaustion.  They would even continue pressing the button long after the electricity had been disconnected.  Indeed, given the choice between food and the stimulus, the rats continued pressing the button to the point of starvation.  And when the rats were required to cross an electrified grid on the floor of the cage in order to get to the button to receive the stimulus, the rats continued tolerating electrocution beyond the point of burning their feet in order to press the button. 

Being biologists rather than psychologists, Olds and Miller didn’t think too much about what the rat might be feeling.  They simply assumed that they had discovered some kind of pleasure or bliss centre within the brain.  And – for them – the good news was that we humans have the same “pleasure centre” in our brains too.  But – there is always a ‘But’ – Olds and Miller were mistaken. 

In the 1960s, psychiatrists treating patients with severe depression wondered whether stimulating Olds and Miller’s “pleasure centre” in depressed brains might serve to improve these patients’ condition.  So a similar experiment was conducted on people with depression.  Electrodes were inserted into their brains and connected to a box that patients could carry with them and self-administer the stimulus.  The results were the same.  Patients began to compulsively press the button to activate their “pleasure centre”.  And when the researchers tried to take the boxes off the patients, the patients would put up a violent struggle to keep them.

Unfortunately, stimulating the “pleasure centre” in depressed patients appeared to have the very opposite effect to that intended.  Not only did their depression remain, but their use of the stimulus looked very similar to the way alcoholics behave in response to alcohol and how drug addicts respond to heroin or cocaine – patients developed cravings and needed more and more of the stimulus to keep getting an effect. 

In fact, the effect of the stimulus turned out to be far from pleasant.  When asked about their experience of the stimulus, patients described it as frustrating.  One female patient described it as being like strong sexual arousal.  The stimulus seemed only to offer the promise of reward.  The result was profound frustration and agitation rather than pleasure or bliss.

Today we understand that Olds and Miller had accessed the dopamine system.  This system uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to rouse animals either to seek reward or avoid discomfort.  And it is, indeed, the same part of the brain that responds to chemical stimuli such as alcohol, cocaine and heroin.  It also responds to more mundane substances like caffeine, nicotine and sugar.  And it responds to certain behaviours like gambling and – crucially for advertisers – to shopping.

Modern advertising uses a range of visual and auditory cues to trigger our dopamine systems in order to get us to shop and to consume.  They reinforce these with basic survival cues around sex and food to encourage our shopping habits.  And they appeal to our social needs by encouraging us to believe that we are being sociable – and fitting in – when we consume.  But the real beauty of this for advertisers is that they have no need to actually give us pleasure or satisfaction – only to promise it. 

How many times have you excitedly bought something only to find that the reality of its consumption is disappointing when compared to the expectation?  All of us have… many, many times over.  Yet despite this, all of us keep going back for more.

You may also notice that contemporary politicians employ a similar approach when seeking our votes. The focus is on all of the goodies – tax cuts, extra services, and higher wages – that we will enjoy if we vote for them; and, of course, all of the bad things – tax rises, cuts to services, a depressed economy – that we will end up with if we vote for their opponents.  And just like shopping, most of us experience profound dissatisfaction after we have voted them into office.  Nevertheless, the majority of us – like so many rats pressing buttons – continue to vote for the same politicians in the vain hope that next time it will be different.

In both politics and advertising, stimulating fear is often more effective than stimulating pleasure-seeking.  In advertising, the fear of being sexually or socially unattractive and being left on the shelf are powerful drivers employed to sell a range of ultimately disappointing products from cars to hair colouring and phones to Botox.  In politics, fear can be taken to greater extremes.  The contemporary use of the fear of terrorism as a means to introduce increasingly draconian curbs on civil liberties is the most obvious of these.  However, paedophilia, welfare scrounging and immigration have also been deployed recently as supposed threats to our continued way of life.  Nevertheless, these are tiny threats when contrasted to the real killers in modern society.  If you want to kill or maim people, the first thing you should do is buy shares in an automobile company.  Then lobby government to relax the regulations around driving, while cutting back on public transport systems so that more people are forced to drive.  In the UK, more than 3,000 people a year are killed in road traffic accidents compared to less than 70 victims of terrorism in the last decade!

Because of our current economic woes, politicians are less able to provide us with rewards.  As we progress into an uncertain future, politicians increasingly utilise our fear to encourage apathy and compliance.  They ruthlessly utilise the insights provided by neurobiologists, psychologists and behavioural economists to prevent the rest of us from using our rational neo-prefrontal cortex to start to seriously address the predicament that we all find ourselves in.

Humanity is caught in the psychological equivalent of a “monkey trap” – the mythical trick used to capture a monkey by placing some peanuts inside a hollowed out coconut shell.  The monkey can get its hand in through a small hole.  But when the monkey clasps the peanuts, its fist is too big to remove them through the hole.  So the monkey is caught, not by the trap itself, but by its inability to escape its immediate desire for the promise of food.  The monkey can walk away any time it chooses simply by letting go of the peanuts.  But it does not… cannot let go.

We, too, are trapped by our twin drives to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  We will fight tooth and nail to hang on to the trappings of a consumerist society that rewards us with fancy baubles that hold only the promise of reward even as the evidence of the destruction that this causes to our life support systems grows around us.  And so long as politicians and corporate advertisers – themselves driven by the desire for immediate gratification – tell us that it is okay, we will go along with it… because all of the alternatives are unpleasant in the short-term.

Faced with massive problems, we – like so many sheep – seek habitual ways of denying our predicament in preference to finding rational ways to address them.

As you made it to the end…

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