Full text of psychologist Douglas Lisle’s talk: The Pleasure Trap at TEDxFremont conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The pleasure trap by Douglas Lisle at TEDxFremont
I’m Doug Lisle. I’m a psychologist. Wasn’t my first choice.
Wanted to be an artist and should have been, but my father refused to give me the emotional support, more importantly the financial support that my talent so richly deserved. History will judge him.
As much as I’d like to process my issues about that this morning, which, believe me, I would, that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to do this psychology thing.
So, what we’re going to talk about is we’re going to try to shed a little light on a puzzle. And that puzzle is: “If we were bright enough and alert enough and conscientious enough and lucky enough, and we had heard the right message about health, and we had heard someone like Dr. John McDougall or T. Colin Campbell or Caldwell Esselstyn or Dr. Neal Barnard, if we knew the right direction to go, why is it so hard to go there?”
That’s what we’re going to try to explore today.
So, I’ll be using some scientific concepts and some charts and things like that, and I’ll even use a few tricks from psychology.
But more than anything, I’m going to be using my artistic skills to try to help bring this home.
So we’re going to begin by asking and answering one of the great philosophical questions of all time. We’re going to be solving the problem of what I call “the pleasure trap,” which is this force that pulls us the wrong direction, but we have to begin here.
Everybody knows what this is of course. Don’t all answer at once.
Of course, it was a bird man; that wasn’t ever in doubt. This is a great shrike. This is a proud bird of prey of the Middle Eastern desert. This one’s a male. You can tell by the distinctive markings.
And what this little guy does all spring long is he goes around and he kills bugs and he pokes them on thorns inside of his territory, which leads us to one of the great philosophical questions of all time, which is, “Why does the male gray shrike kill bugs and poke them on thorns?”
Somebody said sex. He just jumped right to the point.
Yes, it turns out that that’s correct. This is exactly why he does this.
And this is because after he pokes all these bugs on thorns, then the females come in later, and they fly around, and they see which guys have the most stuff in their tree, and then they mate with the guys with the most stuff.
What a shock this is!
But this helped us solve a very puzzling sociological question here in Silicon Valley during the first boom time: Why suddenly there were so many BMWs parked in trees?… but we figured that out.
Now, it’s going to turn out that there’s a whole orchestration of how it is that he knows how to go about doing this. This is all about him activating these instincts, or the environmental cues activating instincts so that he does things that are conducive to the biological problems of survival and reproduction.
And so this is kind of how it is that he works: He’s built by genes, but not just his body is built by genes, also his brain is built by genes, so therefore, his whole life experience is being orchestrated ultimately by the genetic code.
So he has instincts that are built into his neural circuitry, but those instincts are now sensitive to environmental cues, so that’s when he sees a little worm wiggling, he’ll go and kill that worm. That’s what he does.
If he sees a mate, then he shows off or does whatever he does.
But the point is that those neural circuits are sensitive to these inputs, and then what happens is his computations are run in what you and I would call “thought.”
It’s not the kind of thought that we think through, but it’s the same process ultimately, that he’s essentially activating information in an ancient library built by the genetic code where he figures out what’s the right moves to make.
But the way he knows what to do is he has feelings, and feelings now arise in the system that compel him to do behaviors, and the behaviors he does, as we see, are circular.
And the fact that they feed in now to the statistical increased likelihood of the genes being on the planet. That’s why he has the thinking and the feeling and the behavior that he does; it’s because they’re all part of a symphony that increased the likelihood of those genes being here.
Now, so as a psychologist, what I’m really most excited about is I’m excited about feelings because I have a lot of feelings — I’m sure you have feelings — and all of that’s what I’m interested in is feelings.
And what feelings are is something that I did not know as I was going through graduate school.
So in the 1980s, if you asked a psychologist, “What are feelings, and what are they for?” they couldn’t have told you, because they didn’t know.
So we now know that what feelings are is they’re signals. They’re actually evidence. But signal to the organism when something in the environment, some environmental cue, is evidence of something that’s either good for the genes, or good for the statistical likelihood of genes’ survival, or bad for it.
So feelings are either good or bad depending upon whether or not they serve the interest, ultimately, of the substances that built them the entire machine in the first place, which is the genes.
So feelings are signals, and that’s what they are.
Now, the way these basic signals work is as follows: All kinds of creatures have a tripartite motivational system, and that is pleasure seeking, pain avoidance and energy conservation. These are the ways that creatures go about doing what it is they do in the business of life.
So, the main positive incentive the creatures seek is they seek pleasure, so this thing’s flying around the landscape basically with a neon sign flashing in its head, saying food, sex, food, sex, unless it’s a male, then it’s sex, food, sex, food.