Saturday, April 09, 2011

Communication, Violence and the Triune Brain

Thoughts triggered by the comments on the last post.

First of all, don't get all weirded out by the triune brain theory.  Yes, most psychologists don't recognize its validity (always be suspicious of books on the brain written by famous astronomers) but it is a model that works and helps make other concepts easy to grasp.
Here goes:

There are three levels of your brain and they go to violence for entirely different reasons and, in most cases, the types of violence they trigger are completely different.

At the oldest level of your  mind, the part that we share with most vertebrates (and hence we call it the Lizard Brain in Conflict Communications) violence is triggered by a fear of immediate death.  This is the classic fight/flight/freeze reaction and freezing, (not fighting) is the most common.  The fighting usually starts, in the animal world and in ours, when the threat actually bites.  It is a deep part of your brain.  It is not a part touched by your intelligence, your beliefs and knowledge of strategy and tactics or your training.  If this level is triggered, it will be the blind flailing and maybe biting of a panicked animal.  None of your skill will come into play.

We spend most of or time in our social/emotional brains.  We think we are being logical and thoughtful.  In reality, we are trying to stay in the good graces of an imaginary tribe and make sure that things never change (more on this a little later).  The violence at this level rarely gets physical, when it does it is (with only two exceptions) designed NOT to injure.  Social violence is all about sending messages: You are not one of us.  You broke the rules.  This is my territory.  Treat me better.  I am superior to you.  Aren't I cool?

Because of that, social violence has rules.  It is designed not to injure (seriously, people, the over-hand punch to the top of the skull that even trained people tend to open a Monkey Dance with is far more likely to hurt your fist than the other monkey.)  It requires the message to be acknowledged.  That's a big one.  From spanking to execution, punishment violence requires a statement of remorse or our (the punisher's) monkey brain is not satisfied and we want to escalate.  When someone backs down from the dominance game at the lower levels of the MD but then says something insulting as he walks away, the dance is back on and worse.

This drives a lot of the way social violence happens: there must be a justification, and the threat will get in your face screaming insults hoping you will scream one back so that he can blame you.  It starts eye-to eye (or in punishment violence sometimes in a submissive posture).  The violence escalates from pure social (talk, from gossip to insults to threats) to display and then to pain, then to cosmetic damage.  Almost never to serious injury or death.  When it does go to death (only two types within the tribe) it is savage, a venting and a display.  It is still communication.

Almost every aspect of fighting this way is inefficient, if not stupid.  Being in front of the guy?  Using techniques that do minimal damage?  Letting him set the end-game by submission signals?

This is the default value.  Our minds spend the most time here.  In almost any conflict with another human we will instinctively and unconsciously default to this value.  It takes an act of will or experience to NOT fight socially.  I have yet to see a training that overcomes this instinct (though many say they do-- look at videos of force on force training from almost any school and you will still see these defaults.)

The human brain solves problems.  It is intelligent, wise and can make the world a better place.  Humans, despite their beliefs, spend almost zero time in this part of their brains.  "No, not me!"  Really?  Everyone has a sure-fire plan to be (fill in the blank, rich or famous or solve a major problem).  Almost no one does it. And the plans are good.  If you were to make a plan (human brain) and simply execute it, you could make your life better at every level.  The mechanisms are well known (read "Think and Grow Rich" for the blue print).  They are extremely reliable and effective.  Very few people do them.

Because everyone has a voice in the back of the head saying, "That will never work.  Who do you think you are?  What if you fail?  People will laugh.  What if you succeed?  Your friends will resent you."  That voice is the Monkey Brain and its one goal is to preserve your place in a tribal structure that went extinct thousands of years ago.  The monkey brain is older, more powerful and trumps the human brain.

This post isn't about self-improvement, however.  It's about the flavors of violence.  

Violence coming from the human brain is about solving problems.  It is about gathering resources as safely and efficiently as possible.  Your monkey brain wants to end the fight with the other monkey in a position of submission.  Your human brain knows to start a fight with the other monkey in a position of helplessness.  Violence from this level is not about winning.  It is about subduing or destroying and there is no value in the other monkey knowing who did it or how.  If they know how or who, you have given up information.  You human brain knows that it never serves you to give up information.

(And right now as you feel yourself come up with counter-examples and what-ifs, taste the feeling in your brain.  That is the Monkey, your limbic system, chattering using logic that sounds valid so that you can discount information that might weaken it.  Savor the feeling so that you can recognize it later.)

Human level violence is quick, efficient.  Close/hard/fast/surprise. The resource/victim/problem never gets a chance.  Either physically or mentally (a well timed threat works just as well as physical violence with fewer complications) the action is literally overwhelming.  It is never about the threat as an individual or person.  It is about solving the problem.  Getting money for drugs to a robber or serving a high-risk warrant for an entry team.

Most people never, in their entire lives, break out of the grip of their own monkey brain to experience this.  They know they can. They know how to.  Some are told their training is all about this (and this is where WingchungIncas' comment is extremely relevant).  Saying the words is one thing.  Practicing the techniques (which boil down to cheating at an astronomical level) and giving yourself permission to do things that violate your monkey protocols... without those pieces it's all just words.

You can utterly destroy bigger, stronger and better trained people... but you can't outfight them.  Those are qualitatively different things.  And as long as you are in your monkey brain and can't flip the switch (to either human for skill or lizard for ferocity, or both for something really special) you WILL be trying to fight as communication and, against a predator, you will lose. 


Mark H said...

Excellant post Mr Miller (Rory. A very easy to follow and concise explanation of different manifestations of violence and the process and mechanism that deals with each.
I wonder how developmental levels for each segment of the "triune brain" influences ability to switch from one to the other. Is it easier to switch to "lizard brain" from "monkey brain" when the "human brain" is less well developed?
As we get more civilized does this slow down or complicate the individuals ability to mentally shift gears or is it a matter of proper training/conditioning which
is lacking in modern life?
Things to ponder. Thanks

Josh H said...

Where does domestic violence fit into this?

Drew said...

I suspect domestic violence is a dominance move and part of the social brain. Don't mouth off to me *bitchslap* I'm more powerful than you...rarely deadly.

Years ago I had a patient beaten in the head with a hammer by her boyfriend. Was not deadly; was a dominance move. Not saying it couldn't be deadly.


Do these levels of violence only apply to a healthy brain? Where does a sociopathic murderer fall into these categories?

In the case of the zodaic killer, I could see that being a dominance move and a part of the social brain. He was trying to prove his dominance over the rest of society, and he needed credit by means of his letters. So many murderers seem to crave that feedback.

But what about a man who kills a child? He is not in immediate danger, he is not showing off for his friends (it would be condemned), and he is not making the world a better place. Do narcissistic personality disorders break the metaphor?

Eli said...

So now the switch has multiple selection options?

Wouldn't the best way to practice the "flip the switch" tactic is to dehumanize the target into a problem for the brain to solve?
Brainwashing style Ala Hitler, KKK ...etc?

Ben said...

Good post Rory. You really got me thinking of things that happen in my job (security.)

I thought about what you said about 'human violence' and am in agreeance, if I have to put somebody down I don't want them to have any idea what the hell happened except that they have just been put down hard.

I'd love to hear more about training to get out of the monkey protocol and also training your emotions so as to not get caught up in the monkey game.

Rory said...

Mark- Up until maybe 200 years ago, most people had some fear of (and experience with) starvation, bad crops, dying from exposure or violence... for a few generations now, almost all of the problems have been social (the proper response to fear of hunger now is to fill out paperwork, not to sharpen a spear). It's not a matter of more or less civilized, more or less human... but our current society gives the Monkey a lot of exercise.

Josh- When someone asks a question where the answer is so obvious, it feels like a game, like I've in some way destabilized an agenda.

Drew- Yeah, and in the violence dynamics class we break up that level of asocial violence specifically. Those are the process predators in MoV. We'd have to define healthy and unhealthy brain and separate those from minds to even start this talk. Basically, extreme NPDs and APDs enjoy the process and engage in violence as (Maslow) fully self-actualized beings.

Eli- No, and this is sometimes a hard one to grasp. The hate groups do not go into asocial violence. Hate is a social thing. We don't hate the cattle we slaughter, they aren't important enough to hate. Dehumanizing is a low-level othering that allows more violence but t is not the same as asocial violence. And as far as multiple switch settings, of course.

Ben- Conflict Communications is almost entirely about recognizing when you are in your Monkey brain and reading and manipulating the limbic system scripts.

Flinthart said...

In response to Ben, I'm going to argue that one aspect of the strong association between Buddhism - particularly Zen - and a number of well-known martial arts lies precisely in the overcoming of the monkey mind.

A part of these arts was lost in translation when they came to the west. We adopted them as efficient means of fighting and defense, and failed to recognise the degree to which the physical training was traditionally associated with mental and emotional conditioning designed literally to free the thinking, self-aware mind from the constraints of the ape.

You can test this in the real world. Find a Zen Buddhist monk, and try to provoke an argument using the usual social tools. Those in the earlier stages of training will retreat into the dogma and the ritual, to protect themselves from your approach. But the ones who've been at it long enough -- they'll find you both funny, and a little sad, and you'll find it almost impossible to stop them 'helping' you out of your dysfunctional emotional state.

I've often wondered if practically-directed fighting methods couldn't learn something from those folk. It might be valuable to try to reintegrate some of that lost "non-martial" training into our work.

Lise Steenerson said...

Yet another very powerful post Rory. Thanks

David R said...

I've had several instances of, when presented with a violence situation, I "blank-out" (or "red-out" as my instructor calls it) and I don't remember anything from the initial trigger until the trigger has been neutralized. In all the cases, I "came to" at a point where I would have been inflicting serious damage as the next action. Which brain would you say I was in? My guess is you're going to say "Still in social" because of the lack of serious inflicted injury. I'm still interested in your answer.

Rory said...

Flinthart- I have an entirely different perspective on the association of martial arts with Buddhism, at least in the Japanese traditions. That said, IMO fighting is far more mental than physical and it does a disservice to teach only one of those (just meditation or just physicality are both avenues to failure). THAT said, it's imperative that the person teaching the mental stuff have a handle on it, not just parrot things they have been told but may not understand.

Thanks, Lise.

David- Remember that like anything, the triune brain is a model and the map isn't the territory. I wondered for a long time why, under sudden extreme threat, things would go into slow motion or the blur state. My working theory is that these aren't sensory distortions so much as memory distortions.
I've had that experience of snapping back into my human mind in time to not kill. By this model, the lizard brain was triggered.

Flinthart said...

I'd be curious to hear your take on the Buddhism/martial arts linkage, Rory. As it happens, I agree with you absolutely about the desirability of linking the mental and emotional training with the physical -- and also with the cast-iron requirement that the teacher be a real practitioner, and not a parrot.

I've not had the opportunity to train within a strict Zen tradition, so my perspective is acquired from reading, discussion, and knowledge of history. I'm always interested in learning more, though, and your POV seems likely to offer interesting insights.

Tia said...

Rory, is the triune brain theory applicable to kids? Do you think there's a specific age a child develops the ability to be in his/her human brain? When kids/young teens engage in violence and/or murder, is it always while in the monkey brain? Thanks.

Rory said...

Tia- That may be the most important question on this subject ever and I'm not sure I have an answer. We know that physically, the neo-cortex doesn't develop fully in the very young. So most young violence would start monkey and we do see that in inexperienced criminals. But learning and the human brain (logic, smarts, efficiency) doesn't imply a moral good. If you raise someone to believe that those outside the tribe are inhuman there appears to be no PTSD associated with the killing, it is completely asocial. Hmmm. Learns//becomes asocial?
My gut says yes, but it also says that some research and experimentation here might bring some really deep answers.

Steve Perry said...

When I was, I think, seven, my little brother and I were playing cowboys and he clonked me over the the head with his toy gun to knock me out.

I remember flying into a rage and chasing him, and the next thing I remember is lying on my back and looking up at the the sky in my front yard. Apparently, my father heard my brother yelling and came to see why.

He stepped between me and my brother and told me to stop, and I apparently told him to get the hell of of my way and tried to go through him.

Bad idea.

I don't recall anything between the initial chase and the suddenly sky. Monkey or Lizard ... ?

Irene said...

Re kids: There are perhaps some interesting lessons to be learned from the child soldiers in Africa?
Though my suspicion is that the influences on the evolution of the human brain are earlier, Six to seven years old has been termed "The age of Reason" for quite a long time - is that because its about the point at which the human brain has settled into its basic state?