We Are Addicted to Our Brains, with Ruby Wax

The always-entertaining Ruby Wax explains the structure of the brain and how a natural hormone addiction -- particularly to dopamine -- keeps us in a perpetual state of wanting.

Ruby Wax:  So I think it’s really crucial that we all understand what’s going on under our scalp because this is the mother ship and it would explain a lot of our behavior. For example, we don’t have one brain. We have like three brains all smushed under one scalp. And none of them disappeared, you know. They’re just like Russian dolls one inside of another. It’s like a relative you can’t get rid of. So and they’re always arguing with each other. That’s what I mean about conflict in the brain. For example the oldest brain, the brainstem is about I don’t know, 500 million years old and it’s basic. It just made sure that we eat, kill, and mate, which is really only useful if you’re working at Goldman Sachs. So then on top of that maybe 250 million years ago we started to get this mammalian brain, which meant that we bonded with our young rather than ate them. And then only about 500,000 years ago we got this frontal thing and this is El Capitano. This is the executive brain. It’s in charge of attention, awareness, strategic, logical, rational thought.

So you see why we’re confused. We’ve got three brains all squished in here. So that’s probably why you get women who like to — who read Heideggar, but also want to screw the plumber. It’s a mess. Now there’s nothing we can do, but it’s just kind of understanding who’s in charge. There’s nothing you can do about it because sometimes it’s survival, but sometimes you can switch that thing on in front. We’re going back to mindfulness, which means you can regulate; you can pull the reins gently because you know you’re having a limbic reaction. You know I want to kill you, which is one of my favorite states because I’m addicted to my own adrenalin. This is the thing. Forget about coke. Forget about this other stuff. We’re our own drug addicts, you know. We’re natural-born junkies shooting ourselves up with our own hormones. It’s important again besides the brain to understand how our hormones work because that’s what makes us feel the way we feel and do the — well, like think about sex. It’s okay, I’ll give you a few minutes. See when you think about sex it switches on the hormones and that’s what makes the action happen. If you don’t have any hormones you can think all you want. Ain’t nothing going to happen.

Sometimes the hormones come on and you weren’t even thinking about it. That’s like when you get a stiffy in the elevator. So we have about 100 different hormones and they’re driving us and coming on and off depending on which occasion.  For example, well I’m addicted to adrenaline. Sometimes I call a taxi to take me to the airport and when it gets to my house then I start packing. I love that stuff. I get a hit of that one. Serotonin, you know, it’s the feel good chemical. These people are people-pleasers. They don’t have to set their hair on fire to get attention. I have none of that drug. I have to buy it over a counter. So it’s really understanding what mode we’re in, you know.  What’s driving us? And then, of course, the real go get 'em. You know makes you strive and drive is dopamine.  And the kind of problem – it’s again a backlash from when we used to, you know, back in the bush when we used to hunt for nuts or food and we’d get a mouthful, right. And before we swallowed, we’d get this hit of dopamine, which made us look for reward for nuts for later on. I’ll make it simple.

If I want a pair of shoes, you know, I’m into that. And I find a pair of shoes so I get this huge hit of dopamine. And so before I even put them on, I’m already hunting for other shoe-rich environments. And then I’m so hungry to get shoes. Like I’m just primed with that stuff that if I see a woman with a pair I want, I might gnaw her ankle off. So this thing, this dopamine gets us, you know, it gets us jacked up to get the next thing. And if you leave that switch on too long, and we do because there’s always something else to eat, something else to drive, something else to snort, you know. We’re in a constant state of wanting, wanting. And the thing about dopamine, it won’t just stress you out; it’ll kill you. I mean again we’re doing this to ourselves.

There’s countries being bombarded by war and disease and we, here, who have everything are killing ourselves off with our own thoughts. Can you figure that out? So listen, I’m not saying dopamine’s bad. We need this stuff. You know it also works to make us strive to make fire and made us strive to make tools, and strive to put together a bookshelf from IKEA. It’s made us strive. But again if we’re not conscious of it, it burns you out. So again I was interested. If this chemical, you know, all this is happening, is there a way I can intentionally take the bull by the horns and lower this stuff? In my case, when I get too jacked up, you know, when I start the list — buy turtle, feed dog, write this show, worry about Ebola, buy lamp shades. It’s always garbage, you know, mixed in with what, you know, feed children. I get obsessed. Once I bought 150 blue and white striped cushions. Obsessed. And I was on a nautical website for like five days and then they were much smaller when I got them than the picture. The size of a leaf of toilet paper.

And now my house is full — what am I doing with them? It’s the dopamine took over. So suddenly blue and white striped — when the blue and white striped cushions — I had no more air space anymore. I started with the carpets. That’s the nature of human beings. I can’t whip myself. So I wanted to find some way I could, you know, I could get, first of all, maybe cut out some of those critical thoughts and also learn some way I could pull those chemicals down. So that’s when I was interested in studying mindfulness-based cognitive therapy because that certainly is a way where you don’t need to run to a shrink. Now you’re responsible for your own brain.


 

 

The always-entertaining Ruby Wax explains the structure of the brain and how a natural hormone addiction — particularly to dopamine — keeps us in a perpetual state of wanting. Wax is a comedian who also holds a master's degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University.

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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