It Could Always Be Worse

2020 has been an exceptionally challenging year, so far, and we’ve still got nearly five full months of it to go.  But your perspective informs your view, doesn’t it?  My grandmother, for example, frequently said:  “Nothing’s so bad that couldn’t be worse, from the day you were born ’til you ride in a hearse.”  Drawing upon her wise counsel, I’ve adopted a world view that says we shouldn’t complain too much, because things could always be worse than they are.

And even in 2020, there’s no doubt that things could be worse than they are.  Much, much worse, in fact.

e0b8a5e0b8b4e0b887e0b887-2-1-copy-696x392-1Consider the plight of Lopburi, a city of 750,000 people in central Thailand.  It’s now being overrun by thousands of famished, libidinous monkeys who rampage through the city, gorging themselves on fast food, having sex on the streets, and attacking whoever stands in their way.

Interestingly, Lopburi has always been associated with the monkeys, a species called macaques.  For years, the monkeys have hung around the Khmer temple and Khmer shrine in the city, and have been fed by the locals.  And in November, the people of Lopburi put on the “Monkey Festival” to celebrate their crab-eating primate pals.

But now the monkey population has exploded.  Gangs of angry monkeys, with no fear of humans, roam through the city, taking what they want and terrifying the locals, who have barricaded themselves in their homes.  The monkeys live on a diet of sugary fast food that makes them even more unpredictable; one official made the terrifying observation that “[t]he monkeys are never hungry, just like children who eat too much KFC.”  (Anyone who has experienced a kid on a post-fast food sugar rush knows just how frightening that comment actually is.)  The number of monkey babies seen in the city indicates that an even bigger monkey population bomb may be getting ready to explode.  Police estimate that thousands of monkeys have established a base in an abandoned cinema, where they attack any human that tries to enter.  The police apparently believe that trying to disperse or deal with the monkeys is “hopeless.”

So yes, 2020 could be a lot worse than it is.  Until we open our front doors and are confronted by hundreds of ravaging angry monkeys eating cheeseburgers and eager to take a bite out of your skull, we haven’t really hit rock bottom.

The Biology Of Conscience

Scientists at Oxford have made a fascinating discovery about the human brain. They have identified an area called the lateral frontal pole that focuses on considering alternative courses of action and comparing them to what we’ve actually done. Even more intriguing, their work shows that there is no similar area in the brains of monkeys.

The study used MRI scanning techniques to map neural pathways within the brain and determine which areas are connected to the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved with language and cognitive flexibility. The studies allowed the scientists to identify the location and function of the lateral frontal pole, a bundle of neurons described as the size and shape of a Brussels sprout.

What really makes us human? One essential characteristic is comparing what we actually did to what we could have done — and then pondering endlessly about what we should have done. The concept of choice, and the identification, evaluation, and comparison of choices by the lateral frontal pole, lies at the root of many of the higher attributes of humans, because the concept of choice and causation leads inevitably to the concept of right and wrong. Philosophy, morals, ethics, and religious beliefs all argue about which choices are right and which are wrong and what considerations should go into how we make those choices. Should we pursue individual pleasure? Should we always try to act in furtherance of the greatest societal good?

These notions are all wrapped up in what we broadly call a conscience — which apparently lurks in the lateral frontal pole. It’s what makes us feel guilty and second-guess ourselves. It’s why Scrooge dreamed of Marley’s ghost. And it’s fascinating that monkeys, which have brains that are generally similar to the human brain, lack the section of the brain that engages in such activity. They apparently can steal a piece of fruit, happily gobble it down, and sleep soundly that night without a second thought or pang of guilt.

The next time you toss and turn at night, unable to sleep because you wonder whether you did the right thing, you can be sure the neurons in your lateral frontal pole are firing and churning away. We’ve got choice, and the lateral frontal pole ensures that we must live with the consequences.