Molly Smithson

Potent Quotables: Tom Robbins on Technology

Molly Smithson
Potent Quotables: Tom Robbins on Technology

“Paul McLean was the first neurophysicist to point out that we still carry a reptilian brain - functional and intact - around in our skulls today. The reptile brain is not an abstract concept, it is anatomically real. It has been carpeted over by the cerebrum, but it is there, deep within the forebrain, and consists of the limbic lobe, the hypothalamus, and, perhaps, other organs of the diencephalon. When we are in a cold sweat, a blind rage, or simply feeling smugly dispassionate, we may be sure that, for the moment, our reptile brain is in control of our consciousness.

As the Age of Reptiles was drawing to a close, the first flowers and mammals appeared… Our ancestors had by then evolved brains that were both mammalian and floral in their formation. For reasons of its own, evolution allowed mammalian energy to hold sway, and the recently developed human midbrain or mesencephalon, which had folded over the old diencephalon, could be accurately labeled a mammal brain.

Characteristics of mammal consciousness are warmth, generosity, loyalty, love (romantic, platonic, and familial), joy, grief, humor, pride, competition, intellectual curiosity, and appreciation of art and music.

In late mammalian times, we evolved a third brain. This was the telencephalon, whose principal part was the neocortex, a dense rind of nerve fibers about an eighth of an inch thick that was simply molded over top of the existing mammal brain. Brain researchers are puzzled by the neocortex. What is its function? Why did it develop in the first place?

Robert Bly thinks that it is connected somehow to light. If the reptile brain equates with cold and the mammal brain with warmth, then the neocortex equates with light. Bly's hunch makes a lot of sense because the third brain is a floral brain and flowers extract energy from light.

Even prior to the mysterious appearance of the neocortex, our brains had strong floral characteristics. The whole brain is described in science as a bulb. The neurons of which it is composed have dendrites: roots and branches. The cerebellum consists of a large mass of closely packed folia, which are bundles of nerve cells described in the literature as leaflike. Not only do the individual neurons closely resemble plants or flowers, the brain itself looks like a botanical specimen. It has a stem, and a crown that unfolds, in embryonic growth, much in the manner of a petaled rose.

In the telencephalon - the new brain - the floral similarity increases. Its nerve fibers divide indefinitely, like the branches of a tree. This process is called, appropriately, arborization. In the proliferation of those twiggy fibers, tiny deposits of neuromelanin are cast off like seeds. The neuromelanin seeds apparently are the major organizing molecules in the brain. They link up with glial cells to regulate the firing of nerve cells. When we think, when we originate creative ideas, a literal blossoming is taking place. A brain entertaining insights is physically similar, say, to a jasmine bush blooming. It's smaller, and faster, that's all.

Moreover, neuromelanin absorbs light and has the capacity to convert light into other forms of energy. So Bly was correct. The neocortex is light-sensitive and can, itself, be lit up by higher forms of mental activity, such as meditation or chanting. The ancients were not being metaphoric when they referred to illumination.

…When life was a constant struggle between predators, a minute-by-minute battle for survival, reptile consciousness was necessary. When there were seas to be sailed, wild continents to be explored, harsh territory to be settled, agriculture to be mastered, mine shafts to be sunk, civilization to be founded, mammal consciousness was necessary. In its social and familial aspects, it is still necessary, but no longer must it dominate.

The physical frontiers have been conquered. The Industrial Revolution has shot its steely wad. In our age of high technology, the rough and tough manifestations of mammalian sensibility are no longer a help but a hindrance. (And the vestiges of reptilian sensibility, with its emphasis on territory and defense, are dangerous to an insane degree.) We require a less physically aggressive, less rugged human being now. We need a more relaxed, contemplative, gentle, flexible kind of person, for only he or she can survive (and expedite) this very new system that is upon us. Only he or she can participate in the next evolutionary phase. It has definite spiritual overtones, this floral phase of consciousness.

As our neocortex comes into full use, we, too, will practice a kind of photosynthesis. As a matter of fact, we already do, but compared to the flowers, our kind is primitive and limited.

For one thing, information gathered from daily newspapers, soap operas, sales conferences, and coffee klatches is inferior to information gathered from sunlight. (Since all matter is condensed light, light is the source, the cause of life. Therefore, light is divine. The flowers have a direct line to God that an evangelist would kill for.)

Either because our data is insufficient or because our processing equipment is not fully on line, our own nocturnal processing is part-time work. The information our conscious minds receive during waking hours is processed by our unconscious during so-called "deep sleep." We are in deep sleep only two or three hours a night. For the rest of our sleeping session, the unconscious mind is off duty. It gets bored. It craves recreation. So it plays with the material at hand. In a sense, it plays with itself. It scrambles memories, juggles images, rearranges data, invents scary or titillating stories. This is what we call "dreaming." Some people believe that we process information during dreams. Quite the contrary. A dream is the mind having fun when there is no processing to keep it busy. In the future, when we become more efficient at gathering quality information and when floral consciousness becomes dominant, we will probably sleep longer hours and dream hardly at all.

With reptile consciousness, we had hostile confrontation.

With mammal consciousness, we had civilized debate.

With floral consciousness, we'll have empathetic telepathy.

A floral consciousness and a data-based, soft technology are ideally suited for one another. A floral consciousness and a pacifist internationalism are ideally suited for one another. A floral consciousness and an easy, colorful sensuality are ideally suited for one another. “ 

- Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume (edited for length and clarity) 


I think about this passage a lot in these days of Russian hacking, countless studies on how digital networks impact our brain chemistry and a return to mindful Internet usage, I believe the biggest issue is that we have forgotten what technology has been designed to do: make simple tasks easier. That’s why we’ve invented, reinvented and created databases and marketing- so we can find the tools that allow us to move away from having to create our own physical security and allow us to focus on enlightenment: creativity, acknowledging the world around us, getting out and doing things. 

That’s not to say that our communication methods haven’t made enlightenment easier and fairer. The nascence of modern technology came from Cold War data crunching, the Reptilian brain. A large amount of what we consider basic technology is just now being adopted by developing countries, suggesting that an industrialization cycle will continue to play a role in the global relationship with technology. But in the US specifically and developed nations who have had access to technology, I believe a lot of the pain and inadequacy we feel from social networks comes from our mammalian brain overwriting our floral brain in processing data. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research study, “the growth in polarization in recent years is largest for the demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media,” i.e. older generations used to using their mammalian brains. 

If we are to strive to grow this greater conscience, we must pay close attention to the experiences, sensations, light and space we ourselves witness, instead of falling victim to rapid assumptions or base fear. 

We can continue our movement toward collective consciousness and still use technology as a means of simplification. Don’t stare down at your phone if you can request a voice assistant like Alexa or Google Home to add tasks, appointments and other notes to an organizational system. Clean out your files. Ask yourself if the article you’re about to read or the constant Instagram scroll will help you produce a better world, or if it is the same needless consumption as using a plastic water bottle or running the water when you brush your teeth. 

That being said, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or better yet in person, over a cup of coffee or a beer. Also, you should read all of Jitterbug Perfume.