Can it be doubted that three-kilogramme brains were once a nearly fatal defect in the evolution of the human race?"

Econ Nerd Review: Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Your Big Brain

This post discusses depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide, and self-harm. I think it does so in a pretty constructive and helpful way? But I wrote it, so here are some large grains of kosher salt.

Boy howdy do I love this gif.

Reading! It’s just like they said it would be! “I can go anywhere. Friends to know. Ways to grow.”

Today I want to share with you my favorite book about mental health. It’s not a memoir or a self-help book. It’s not even nonfiction! No, it’s a little ditty from 1985 about evolution, ghosts, Armageddon, and nubbins. Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos is a brilliant satire on the evolutionary advantages and disadvantages of the human brain. And it completely changed the way I think about mental health, including my own depression.

The opening scene follows a woman as she attempts suicide, and it’s narrated by the dispassionate ghost of a Richard Attenborough nature documentarian type. Here’s a brief excerpt, with a few plot things trimmed out:

“Mary taught that the human brain was the most admirable survival device yet produced by evolution. But now her own big brain was urging her to take the polyethylene garment bag from around a red evening dress in her closet, and to wrap it around her head, thus depriving her cells of oxygen.

“Before that, her wonderful brain had entrusted a thief at the airport with a suitcase containing all her toilet articles and clothes which would have been suitable for the hotel.

“Her colossal thinking machine could be so petty, too. It would not let her go downstairs in her combat fatigues on the grounds that everybody, even though there was practically nobody in the hotel, would find her comical in such a costume. Her brain told her: ‘They’ll laugh at you behind your back, and think you’re crazy and pitiful, and your life is over anyway. You’ve lost your husband and your teaching job, and you don’t have any children or anything else to live for, so just put yourself out of your misery with the garment bag. What could be easier? What could be more painless? What could make more sense?’

“Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilogrammes! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. 

“So I raise this question, although there is nobody around to answer it: Can it be doubted that three-kilogramme brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?”

Yeah. This novel completely changed the way I thought about the human mind.

Character versus biology

In Galapagos, every illogical act is ascribed not to the individual’s character, but to the peculiarities of their easily-malfunctioning, dangerously overdeveloped “big brains.” Characters even drink to find relief by making their brains feel “smaller.” They are tormented by the huge organ that lives inside their head. It makes them fall in love with people and perform petty acts of cruelty against others and harm themselves.

Something about this made me really understand something I had heard before, but couldn’t internalize. I’d been told that addiction was a disease—but wasn’t it just weakness? Don’t anxious people just need real problems to worry about? Aren’t depressed people just lazy? In other words: isn’t a person’s behavior the most reliable indicator of their moral character? 

I think this is the knee-jerk reaction most people have to mental illnesses, mood disorders, addictions, and other such fun things. If your brain is a perfectly logical and perfectly responsive instrument, and it serves your explicit conscious intent at all times, we could read all behaviors as evidence of explicit intent. This assumption is so pervasive that it exists even among medical professionals.

I certainly used to think about my depression in this way. “You’re lying in bed all day because you’re lazy.” This ran through my head like a mantra. And doesn’t it make sense? If laziness was my goal (consciously or unconsciously), lying in bed all day is the optimal way to meet that goal.

Galapagos broke me out of that spell and allowed me to rationalize what was happening to me.

Your brain the traitor, your brain the ally

Perhaps the most confusing part of being depressed is that it can happen when you’re otherwise tremendously happy. A complex biochemical glitch in my serotonin production exists independent of all the things in life that bring me joy. Anxious people can still experience the positive rush of excited energy (or the necessary flare of helpful fear) from their traitorous amygdala.

Our brains aren’t ever truly “right.” They’re weird, globby lumps of cells and electricity that self-assembled over millions of years. Of course there isn’t a right and uniform way for them to work!

Recognizing this biological reality made it much, much easier for me to lay aside any feelings of guilt I had about depression. I am not broken, weak, or bad. I’m alive.

This has also allowed me to contextualize the feedback I get from my brain.

Thinking about thoughts

Most of the advice I get from my own brain is pretty great advice. She communicates with all my other organs. She asks them what they need and translates it into suggestions about how to behave. “Your blood says it still needs oxygen, so keep that breathing thing going. You’ve got a big lactic acid situation in your muscles, so go ahead and feel tired from all that gardening you did earlier. That guy on the train platform is looking at you creepily, I’ll give you a little adrenaline just in case.”

Usually, my brain is like Pepper fucking Potts! She knows what I need before I do! But when I’m depressed, she starts saying weird shit like, “You don’t have enough energy to get off the couch.”

If I thought my brain were infallible, I’d believe her, and I’d stay on the couch.

Now I know she isn’t, so I can respond to that voice with skepticism. “Girl, you know I love you, but I ate Eggo Waffles this morning, and they gave me 1D12+6 strength. I’m going to stand up now.” And then I do.

None of this is to say that you can punch through the physical symptoms of depression and anxiety with the mighty fist of logic. Constantly screening and challenging my own thoughts is incredibly draining. I still exhibit the symptoms of depression, because my energy is so taxed by the process. But it removes the burden of feeling like a lazy, pathetic piece of shit on top of it. For me, that miraculous revelation takes the experience from debilitating to fiercely annoying.

“Something is always going wrong with our teeth. They don’t last anything like a lifetime, usually. What chain of events in evolution should we thank for our mouthfuls of rotting crockery?” 

He's absolutely right!

The evolution of the human race

(This next part is going to sound like a spoiler for Galapagos, but it really isn’t, because the narrator casually mentions it almost immediately.)

A series of cataclysmic financial, environmental, and health disasters leaves only a few fertile humans left alive on Earth. Our ghostly narrator informs us that, a million years in the future, humans continue to evolve to suit the new environment. With fish as their main source of food, their hands become flipper-like, their bodies covered in a seal’s pelt of hair. Best of all, their craniums become streamlined for swimming. Natural selection gives them the smaller brains they so desperately needed. And humans no longer have to contend with the problems created by their big brains.

Does this sound bleak? I can’t say that it is. It’s bittersweet and funny. The narrator maintains that “the only true villain in my story [is] the oversize human brain.” And in the end, the villain fades away.

Vonnegut always was cannily ahead of his time. What he predicted for the future of our big brains may actually already be happening.

The future of big brains

If the Darwinian ideas about evolution that are so central to Galapagos hold true, maladaptive genetic traits should be selected out of the gene pool. So let’s pose this question: why have autism rates skyrocketed in the last century?

There are many known factors and many unconfirmed theories. We know that diagnostic tools have greatly improved. We also have an improved awareness of the ways in which unconscious bias influences diagnosis. This could partially explain the 4x lower rate of diagnosis for girls: they are conditioned from birth to be more socially adaptive, thus making their symptoms harder to recognize. It could also address why racial minorities are significantly less likely to be diagnosed. “Acting out” in a white child is pathological, but expected from a black or brown child.

But one really interesting theory is that the genetic mutations associated with autism are actually extremely adaptive to modern human life.

Autism is different because there is not a singular genetic profile associated with it. Contrast this to a person with Down syndrome, who has a third copy of their #21 chromosome. Or a woman with a mutation in her BRCA1 gene, which makes her more susceptible to breast cancer.

No, what makes autism unique is that it is attached to many genes. This is why we see the unique aspects of autism present in a spectrum, rather than it being a homogeneous condition. And get this—it’s attached to some of our most advantageous genes. Specifically, the genes associated with high intelligence.

The traits associated with autism are among our most ancient and highly-prized. That makes it extremely unlikely to ever be eradicated from the human gene pool—barring Vonnegut being right about the whole flippers-and-fur thing.

The future is neurodiverse

This is why some researchers theorize that autism spectrum traits are a key part of our future development as a species.

Common-but-not-universal similarities between so-called “high functioning” individuals on the autism spectrum include incredibly high cognitive abilities, intense focus, interest in performing repetitive tasks, logic-driven mindset, excellent auditory and visual perception, hypersensitivity to physical stimuli, difficulty processing subtle social cues, a different experience of empathy, verbosity, and physical clumsiness.

Far from being undesirable, many of these traits are highly prized in our culture and incentivized in our modern life. The stereotype of autistic individuals being great at math and science is often true, but is also too limiting and proscriptive. Many of our greatest writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, comedians, actors, inventors, and political leaders are either confirmed or believed to be on the autism spectrum. Get the Rain Man toothpick counting thing out of your head.

One thing I want to touch on is empathy. The idea of a person with little or no empathy may seem kinda worrying. And many people with autism (fairly) rankle at the implication that they’re robots or monsters. But there are four important things to keep in mind here. One: everyone is different. Two: there is more than one kind of empathy, and even neurotypical people experience empathy in very different degrees—including none at all. Three: empathy can be completely separate from sympathy, compassion, altruism, and the desire to behave ethically. And four: it’s not clear if empathy is actually a net benefit to the human race.

I’m not autistic, but I feel no affective empathy whatsoever. (That’s the kind of empathy where you literally feel another person’s feelings.) If my friend tells me about how sad she is, I don’t feel her sadness. I also don’t have fantastic cognitive empathy. (That’s the ability to read unspoken social cues.) I might not notice my friend is sad until she comes out and tells me. But none of those things have anything to do with how I respond to her sadness when I’m made aware of it. Because I’m not autistic, these things aren’t pathologized. I get to be “a somewhat oblivious yet grounded person who’s always there when you need her!”

I think it’s really unhelpful to think of empathy as a necessary part of the human condition. Empathy is closely linked to tribalism (and by extension, racism and every other kind of -ism). “I only care about your pain because you remind me of myself” is a pretty sneaky way for our big brains to force us to work cooperatively to ensure our survival! It’s entirely possible for compassion to be driven by logic instead. “I care about your pain because you are a human being and you deserve dignity” feels like a big improvement to me. If more big brains worked like that, it might just save the human race.

I still love you, big brain

In Galapagos, Vonnegut sardonically posited that the big brain was the ultimate enemy of mankind. Yet we have always treasured our big brains as what separates us from beasts.

I appreciate the shit out of my big brain. I love its ability to be logical, and I love its inability to be logical. The contrast of logical and illogical thoughts is what makes the most intersecting aspects of being alive. Sometimes they cause painful, intrusive, unfair thoughts. Sometimes they may even kill us, like when Vonnegut’s Mary thinks to wrap a garment bag around her head.

But one thing I know for sure is that the idea of a “normal” is antithetical to the idea of “brain.”

The Big Brain am winning!

Now I am leaving Earth for no raisin!

We must set aside the idea that there is one type of brain that works correctly and any variation reflects some kind of failure. People whose brains compute information differently from yours are incredibly valuable people to surround yourself with, on a personal and a broader social level. Harmful manifestations of those differences should be addressed, but the differences themselves are a a net benefit to everyone. And it’s my guess that the worst harm comes from the isolation that comes with thinking that someone else’s big brain is working just fine, and you alone must grapple with an enemy within.

“’I’ll tell you what the human soul is, Mary,’ he whispered, his eyes closed. ‘Animals don’t have one. It’s the part of you that knows when your brain isn’t working right. I always knew, Mary. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, but I always knew.” 

I am tremendously touched by all the commenters who’ve opened up about their big brains. The past few articles have been super hard to write, but the effort feels so worth it. Neuroatypical are everywhere (possible literally), and we want their struggles, limitations, and successes to become much more visible than they are today. Everyone deserves validation and support, period. And we’re not done! No ma’am! More mental health articles are coming at your hot and fresh next week.

Today’s comments section is reserved for people with big brains! Bad brains, weird brains, naughty misbehaving brains, traitorous brains, misfiring brains, broken brains, boring vanilla brains. Absolutely no small-brained seal-people with flippers and fine silky pelts allowed! I’m tired of you lot rubbing your perfection in our faces!

A huge thank-you to the sensitivity readers who helped with today’s post. And last week’s post. And next week’s post! Our blog would be as basic as a rustic wooden “Live, Laugh, Love” wall hanging without your help.

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4 thoughts on “Econ Nerd Review: Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos and Your Big Brain

  1. Appreciating neurodiversity is so important. I’m hoping we’re getting at least slightly better at it. Even in the decade that I’ve been teaching, looking at the ways we previously viewed autism and Asperger and now consider the spectrum as more of a continuum is hugely encouraging. Beyond that, the push to take students OUT of pull-out classrooms and have everyone taught in full-inclusion models as often as possible is wonderful. We have so much to learn from so many brains.

    And OMG I am 100% for the Vonnegut.

    I share this with my students every year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

  2. I’ve found it’s helpful to think of my brain on a physical level—it just doesn’t produce the same amounts of chemicals that other brains do. I just have a glitch where my brain produces too much of this, too little of that. Just like producing too little blood creates physical symptoms, producing too much/too little brain chemicals creates mental symptoms. Now I don’t have to feel bad about those symptoms—I’ve just got a brain glitch, and the symptoms that come with it. It’s not a choice or a personality defect, it just exists.

    1. Yeah, that is a good way of thinking about it. I used to think about my own brain as “having all the parts, but certain parts aren’t really connected to the rest, and lots of how it is wired is different.”

      Yay for weird, big brains!

  3. It’s so much more productive, sometimes, to think of your brain as a being just slightly to the left of You. Anxiety can be addressed so much more effectively if you can say ‘I love you, but my brain is saying you’re doing [x] and it’s fucking me up, can you reassure me that what you are doing and what it is perceiving are not the same thing, or reassure me that it is and that you didn’t intend to?’ It makes things a little less personal.

    But it doesn’t help, sometimes, when your brain is still giving you horrifying thoughts to cope with, to recognize that they’re outside of yourself. You can recognize that you don’t have to do what your brain says, and that can be an enormous help in some ways, but it doesn’t stop the thoughts from being present, there in the background fabric of your life, the texture through which you perceive everything else. You still feel rotten.

    Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being able to perceive my experiences and /who i am/ as slightly different things drawing from the same pool is a bit philosophical, but still very important to me. Without that, I don’t know how I would cope.

    Thank you for putting this out here, I’m definitely going to look up Galapagos and try to read it.

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