The Reptilian Brain


“We’re playing to the reptilian brain rather than the logic centers, so we look for key words and images to leverage the intense rage and anxiety of white working-class conservatives. In other words, I talk to the same part of your brain that causes road rage.”

— At Playboyan essay by an anonymous Tea Party consultant.

Then I came across this Matisse quote, “I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.”

And then I got really bothered because it occurred to me that this Tea Party guy is pretty damn close to being an artist. While artists and writers may use a wider range of emotion, and while for the most part we aren’t using our talents for outright political manipulation, art, I think, goes after the reptilian brain just just as much if not more than political consultants. It should be about conveying emotion, right?

And to make things more complicated, art should also, in its own way, be a call to action.

So what’s the difference?

Maybe the difference lies somewhere between manipulating people to do what you believe is right for reasons even you don’t believe and convincing people to act based on what you do believe. That makes me feel a little better, but the problem is that can be a damn thin line.

What do you think?

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →