What Makes Us Tick?

What drives us, or “what makes us tick”, is an ancient question asked by philosophers, religious scholars, mystics and the curious for time immemorial. The time and space necessary to go into depth would require at least a book, so I will restrict myself to a general look at this subject, in a way that I hope causes us to be more consciously curious about ourselves and how we would like to live our lives.

brain_669189-web  Aside from us having three main types of brain function: instinct, emotion and intellect; what I find most fascinating is a) the only profound difference between us and animals is self consciousness, and b) how that self consciousness plays itself out – especially combined with our cultural conditioning. 

  Over 35 years ago, I became aware that apes, elephants, dogs and dolphins (or any animals for that matter), did not erect crosses, build places of worship or anything of that nature. Only humans seem to have a self consciousness, a self awareness that leads and results in them making choices that animals do not. When an animal is born, (like a horse, dog, etc.) they do not seem to have a mechanism that creates a self-concept and the resulting internal dialogue of “I”. 

  “I, Dirk, was born, in Vancouver, on June 11th, 1959! I am here, I am a man, I am important, I am a gemini, I am a carpenter, I am a farmer, I am an activist, I am a first born child of German descent, my father was an officer in the Nazi Wehrmacht, my grandfather was a general in the first and second world war, my father escaped from Russian prison camp and passed his modern day angst onto me, etc., etc.” 

  Do animals think in these terms? There are dogs in our city with only three legs as a result of being run over by a car and then amputation by a vet. Do they hate GM vehicles and veterinarians after that? Do they sue for damages, are they angry, bitter and vengeful? Do they tell the story over and over again or do they accept missing a leg and get on with their lives? Judging by their seemingly joyful behaviour, I suggest the latter.

  Humans, on the other hand, manifest their “self consciousness” in the form of “ego”, their sense of “I” being who they are and their sense of importance and entitlement. As an infant, baby, toddler and young child, all this makes perfect sense for survival. It is how our ego develops further that I find fascinating; this seems to come from social conditioning, our “culture”, ergo, how we are enculturated. 

Nurture or nature?

  For instance, if a child was raised by wolves, as an adult would that person be okay with eating a deer while it was still alive and licking fresh blood off her/his fingers? Why do most of us have difficulty with snot, poo, pee or menstruation? Why are people in other “cultures” able to eat cats, dogs, horses, monkeys, snakes and sheep eyeballs?

  On a television program called “Survivor”, contestants voted off a bright woman and university graduate (whose ancestors happened to be Chinese) because they were “grossed out” by her eating the neck of a chicken that they had won in a challenge against the other team. These same people had lost so much weight from their lack of protein and fat intake that their bones were beginning to show!

  Children and animals understand the importance of eating dirt for their immune systems and now extensive studies prove that our “uber” cleanliness has weakened our culture’s immune system, leading to more sickness and disease. At this point, I am positing that very much of how we “are” is not how we are born (that is, functioning according to our animal or human nature) but according to our “conditioning”. Yes, I am suggesting that rather than functioning from a place of choice, or free will as it were, that we, like Pavlov’s dogs, are brainwashed and conditioned. This is, unfortunately, largely not a “conspiracy”, though there are elements of that also, but rather a complex, societal structure that we all agree to and reinforce daily. This culture that we have created stems from thousands of years of beliefs, superstition, phobias, neuroses and patriarchy which, combined with our human-animal herd instinct, makes for an interesting mix.

maslows_hierarchy_of_needssvg  Robert Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is one model often used in western culture to understand how we function. It is also used by marketers to encourage consumption of products for profit. 

  Various examples include McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it”, Nike’s “Just do it”, Coke’s “It’s the real thing, Coke is life”, and let’s remember using our esteemed, trusted doctors to sell cigarettes by smoking them in television commercials while wearing their white smock and stethoscope in their office. It is worth mentioning that a nurse with a traditional nurse outfit would subserviently bring the cigarettes on a tray. Car commercials focus on feelings like speed, freedom and security. My favorite is beer commercials that usually show good-looking young people in their sexual prime having fun outdoors or “partying” – the sales pitch being the social (and sexual) success associated with the consumption of such products.

When did it change?

  Before the industrial revolution, and the creation of our current form of capitalistic, corporatist, consumeristic society, things were similar in essence but simpler in structure. Our driving need to “belong to the herd” was exploited more by religion, ergo, believing in a god, going to church, etc. Ironically, the most positive examples of functioning societies or intentional communities in North America are ones with a faith component, usually monotheistic and bible-based, such as the Amish, Doukhobors and Mennonites. 

  In Canada, in 1900, 90% of Canadians were involved in agriculture, so agri-culture and survival through food production was a major factor connecting us as a society. Now that less than 4% of Canadians are involved in agriculture, more and more people have moved to cities to find work that pays “better” and is physically “easier”. The mix of human nature and our drive for speed and efficiency, combined with a market-driven, consumer-based economy has created a society of individuals who are more and more competitive in our behaviors to fulfill our driving needs. 


  Our shelters continue to grow in size. I grew up in a 700 square foot home with a 9 cubic foot fridge (which is smaller that most people’s beer fridge). Somehow, people survived with three to six children in such a home. My “empty nest”, D.I.N.K. (double income, no kids) neighbours build 4,000 square foot homes. Many of us grew up with one car and no garage; today, my neighbours have four-car garages and five cars! Many people have so much stuff in their garage that they have to park their cars in the driveway… and even rent storage lockers to store yet more excess.


  Our food portions continue to grow. 50% of Canadians are overweight and 35% are obese. Annual sugar-eating has gone from six pounds per person in 1960 to 106 pounds in 2006; one in four children in Canada is slated for diabetes. As we look for cures for many diseases, we are literally eating ourselves into disease. At the same time, about 50% of our provincial budget goes to “health care”.


  It used to be that in most families, one parent worked; now in most families, both parents work, with the mother often breaking even (or worse, even losing money) by getting a job to pay for a minivan or SUV to drive her children to daycare so she can go to work to pay for the minivan and daycare. Seems like a vicious cycle – all this so we can have more money to consume trendy clothing, bigger houses and fancier vehicles with DVD players to entertain our children as we drive them from one activity to another… so we can feel like we belong to the herd?

  What if we, “sheeple”, just woke up one day and said, “No more Walmart, no more Superstore, no more “designer” clothes, shoes and such (mostly made by slave labour in third world countries using toxic dyes, chemicals, plastics and processes which then destroy our health, the health of our children and of our earth)?

  Having a societal structure with many social agreements (including consequences for not keeping them) has great value, such as with politeness, sharing, staying on our side of the road and paying taxes. These agreements make our system work for the betterment of all. But when we unconsciously allow our human needs to become co-opted and perverted, our NEED for “feeling good and belonging to family and the herd” infects and poisons our thinking, affecting all of our decisions. We will be dishonest, acting like we like someone that we loathe, we will attend events that we would rather not, eat things we don’t like or even make us ill in order to not “hurt” another’s feelings. We will buy clothes that the fashion industry says are “in style”, keep nicely trimmed lawns emulating castle gardens of serfdom times, shop for houses that are priced according to the maximum the bank will lend us and feel compelled to attend university (often not in a field that suits us or our interests and acquiring $30,000 to $100,000 in debt, only to work at a minimum wage job). 

  We get married to someone driven by our need for love, acceptance and belonging, not realizing that we are driven to do so by that very need, as well as our animal sexual drive to reproduce. We then have children, often unconsciously and even unwanted for the same reasons. We feel pressure and then go on to reinforce that same pressure by asking our children when are they going to “give us” grandchildren. 

  There is much talk about the pay of politicians who are an easy and preferred target and a welcome distraction from reality. What politicians, teachers and nurses make aside, how is it that we pay lawyers $150 an hour to screw up what we call “justice” and pay movie stars, rock stars and hockey players millions? Is this not a gross over-valuation? What does it say about a society that pays millions to be entertained but pays about minimum wage to strangers to raise our children so we can go to work to make money in order to buy more stuff? 

  Along the same line, how can Vancouver, with all the violent crime and police, ambulance, hospital, court, jail and long term societal costs, justify, in the name of “income generation” inviting the U.F.C. (ultimate fight competition) to their city? This competition is where men fight “like animals” inside a cage, with the object being to pin the other guy on his back with one’s knees on his chest and then proceed to pound his face a to a pulp. The proof that we “value” these things and are fetishizing violence is the pay scale, as touched on previously. By the way, U.F.C. ringside seats were $3,000.00 each. 

So here we are at a crossroads

  Peak oil and the little bit left is currently poisoning the ocean and every living thing whether BP’s catastrophe, the tar sands, the 30 million registered vehicles in Canada or the clear-cutting of our forests and subsequent, permanent soil damage, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and one million murdered Iraqis so we can have cheap gas to drive yet even larger, more powerful vehicles and fly to sunny destinations or visit relatives across the country at our pleasure. Almost all food, clothing and “consumables” are produced by oil. 

  We have all this “information”, including television and the internet, yet are not translating this “awareness” into much more than a reusable shopping bag and recycling.

  Our society, as we know it, must undergo wholesale, cultural change. We can all bring this about by forcing ourselves to become truly, more conscious. When we do that, one will immediately notice one’s awareness growing and shifting, resulting in thinking speaking and behaving differently.

  The fastest, easiest and most tangible way to begin this process is to evaluate and revaluate our values and how we express those values buy how we make and spend our money.

  How much do you know about who you work for and what the hidden costs are of that organization? How much do you know about the creation of the foods and clothing you buy? How are those workers treated, the parents, the children, their culture, their environment? It is soul-destroying if we maintain the cognitive dissonance of saying we love animals but eating inhumanely raised, treated and slaughtered factory animals. It is disingenuous to say, “I love people”, “I love children” or “I love nature” and continue with shopping choices that are non-harmonious and feed the “Tyrannosaurus Rex” system that we are, in essence, voting for every time we cast our ballot in the form of credit cards, debits and cash. We are saying, “Yes, I agree and support things as they are and I am too “busy” to give it much thought.

  This struggle, which, to me, is based in a very animal-instinct (survival, feel-good, need-to-belong-to-the-herd) reaction, has blinded us to the fact that our current lifestyle and obscene level of consumption hurts us and will hurt our children and their children for generations to come. We have a fundamental responsibility to be aware of and consider the well being of every living thing on earth; this dictates that we slow down, become more present, make major shifts in our life. Start small and start now, accelerating the change as you feel the peace that comes with living more harmoniously and in alignment with all of the positive aspects of what makes us human. 

  The sooner we start these changes, the easier it will be to make them when the rest of the changes will, by virtue of our lack of virtue, be forced upon us.


Dirk is a public speaker, organic farmer and agricultural advocate whose interests include how auyervedic body types and birth order affect communication and relationships.