I Smell Fear

Excerpt from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

As long as doctors, engineers and customers focused on healing mental diseases and enjoying life in WEIRD societies, the study of subnormal mental states and WEIRD minds was perhaps sufficient to our needs. Though normative psychology is often accused of mistreating any divergence from the norm, in the last century it has brought relief to countless people, saving the lives and sanity of millions.

However, at the beginning of the third millennium we face a completely different kind of challenge, as liberal humanism makes way for techno-humanism, and medicine is increasingly focused on upgrading the healthy rather than healing the sick. Doctors, engineers and customers no longer want merely to fix mental problems – they are now seeking to upgrade the mind. We are acquiring the technical abilities to begin manufacturing new states of consciousness, yet we lack a map of these potential new territories. Since we are familiar mainly with the normative and sub-normative mental spectrum of WEIRD people, we don’t even know what destinations to aim towards.

Not surprisingly then, positive psychology has become the trendiest subfield of the discipline. In the 1990s leading experts such as Martin Seligman, Ed Dinner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argued that psychology should study not just mental illnesses, but also mental strengths. How come we have a remarkably detailed atlas of the sick mind, but no scientific map of the prosperous mind? Over the last two decades, positive psychology has made important first steps in the study of super-normative mental states, but as of 2016, the super-normative zone is largely terra incognita to science.

Under such circumstances, we might rush forward without any map, and focus on upgrading those mental abilities that the current economic and political system needs, while neglecting and even downgrading others. Of course, this is not a completely new phenomenon. For thousands of years the system has been shaping and reshaping our minds according to its needs. Sapiens originally evolved as members of small intimate communities, and their mental faculties were not adapted to living as cogs within a giant machine. However, with the rise of cities, kingdoms and empires, the system cultivated capacities required for large-scale cooperation, while disregarding other skills and aptitudes.

For example, archaic humans probably made extensive use of their sense of smell. Hunter-gatherers are able to smell from a distance the difference between various animal species, various humans and even various emotions. Fear, for example, smells different from courage. When a man is afraid he secretes different chemicals compared to when he is full of courage. If you sat among an archaic band debating whether to start a war against the neighbours, you could literally smell public opinion.

As Sapiens organised themselves into larger groups, noses lost much of their social importance, because they are useful only when dealing with small numbers of individuals. You cannot, for example, smell the American fear of China. Consequently, human olfactory powers were neglected. Brain areas that tens of thousands of years ago probably dealt with odours were put to work on more urgent tasks such as mathematics. The system prefers that our neurons solve differential equations rather than smell our neighbours.

The same thing happened to our other senses and to the underlying ability to pay attention to our sensations. Ancient foragers were always alert and attentive. Wandering in the forest in search of mushrooms, they sniffed the wind carefully and watched the ground intently. When they found a mushroom, they ate it with the utmost attention, aware of every little nuance of flavour, which could distinguish an edible mushroom from its poisonous cousin. Members of today’s affluent societies don’t need such keen awareness. We can go to the supermarket and buy any of a thousand different dishes, all supervised by the health authorities. But whatever we choose – Italian pizza or Thai noodles – we are likely to eat it in haste in front of the TV, hardly paying attention to the taste.

Similarly, thanks to good transport services we can easily meet a friend who lives across town. But even when we get together we seldom give this friend our undivided attention because we constantly check our smartphone and our Facebook account, convinced that something far more interesting is probably happening elsewhere. Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose.

In addition to smelling and paying attention, we have also been losing our ability to dream. Many cultures believed that what people see and do in their dreams is no less important than what they see and do while awake. Hence people actively developed their ability to dream, to remember dreams and even to control their actions in the dream world, which is known as ‘lucid dreaming’. Experts in lucid dreaming could move about the dream world at will, and claimed they could even travel to higher planes of existence or meet visitors from other worlds. The modern world, in contrast, dismisses dreams as subconscious messages at best, and mental garbage at worst. Consequently, dreams play a much smaller part in our lives, few people actively develop their dreaming skills, and many people claim that they don’t dream at all, or that they cannot remember any of their dreams.

Did the decline in our capacity to smell, pay attention and dream make our lives poorer and greyer? Maybe. But even if it did, for the economic and political system it was worth it. Your boss wants you to constantly check your emails rather than smell flowers or dream about fairies. For similar reasons, it is likely that future upgrades to the human mind will reflect political needs and market forces.

For example, the US army’s ‘attention helmet’ is meant to help people focus on well-defined tasks and speed up their decision-making process. It may, however, reduce their ability to show empathy and tolerate doubts and inner conflicts. Suppose you are having an ongoing crisis in your workplace, because your new boss doesn’t appreciate your views, and insists on doing everything her way. After one particularly unhappy day, you pick up the phone and call a friend. But the friend has little time for you, so he cuts you short, and tries to solve your problem: ‘Okay. I get it. Well, you really have just two options here: either quit the job, or stay and do what the boss wants. And if I were you, I would quit.’ That would hardly help. A really good friend would not be so quick to find a solution. He would listen to your distress, and allow time and space for all your contradictory emotions and gnawing anxieties to surface.

The attention helmet works a bit like the impatient friend. Of course sometimes – on the battlefield, for instance – people need to take firm decisions quickly. But there is more to life than that. Overusing the attention helmet may cause us to lose our ability to tolerate confusion, doubts and contradictions, just as we have lost our ability to smell, dream and pay attention. The system may push us in that direction, because it usually rewards us for the decisions we make rather than for our doubts. Yet a life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions.

When we mix a practical ability to engineer minds with our ignorance of the mental spectrum and with the narrow interests of governments, armies and corporations, we get a recipe for trouble. We may successfully upgrade our bodies and our brains, while losing our minds in the process. Indeed, techno-humanism may end up downgrading humans. The system may prefer downgraded humans not because they would possess any superhuman knacks, but because they would lack some really disturbing human qualities that hamper the system and slow it down. As any farmer knows, it’s usually the brightest goat in the flock that stirs up the most trouble, which is why the Agricultural Revolution involved downgrading animals’ mental abilities. The second cognitive revolution, dreamed up by techno-humanists, might do the same to us, producing human cogs who communicate and process data far more effectively than ever before, but who can hardly pay attention, dream or doubt. For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants.



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