The handbag in your brain

Abstract: Sex, the handbag and neuroscience – they’re all connected…

There are few things more frightening for a man than being caught in the threshold of a full-on, high-end sales fracas, where branded handbags have been slashed in price, and where women have been unleashed to consume. The resulting frenzied whirr of claws, teeth and spittle can cause irreparable harm; and it’s all being driven by an animal instinct.

I doubt few women fully understand what is behind the madness that erupts at a high-end sale, and especially around handbags; but it’s a wonderful examination of the more baser instincts of human behaviour; and lying, grinning and inviting, at it’s very centre is our old friend – sex.

As a science journalist and scholar of human psychology, I am fascinated at what drives human behaviour, and especially intrigued at the neurological triggers; i.e. events in the brain, that are most at fault; and there are few areas of study more enticing than those where logic battles with emotion. Example: the handbag in your brain.

To understand this it’s important to realise that your brain has evolved over millions of years. Simply assuming that woman was plonked onto the planet, as-is but without a handbag, won’t work – it’ll just make women out to be shallow and materialistic. No; in order to really appreciate the wondrous subtleties of a woman’s mind, we have to accept that it is a masterstroke of evolutionary engineering.

As our animal ancestors evolved, so did their brains, in the process developing more and more advanced functions. However, and here’s the truly beautiful part, we still retain parts of the brain that we share – in function – with other animals; and, as such, there are three distinct, but interconnected, parts of the brain.

The most basic is the reptilian brain – or brain stem – which co-ordinates basic, vital functions such as breathing. As the name suggests, we share this with most reptiles. Next up the evolutionary ladder is the limbic system, which we share with most mammals. This records memories of agreeable and disagreeable experiences and therefore helps in socialising. In humans these are called ’emotions’. Finally, there is the neocortex. This is the newest part of the brain, which we share with most primates; except in humans it is more developed. It is the characteristic outer, grey, folded matter, and is responsible for the development of language and abstract thought. It’s what makes us ‘civil’.

In order to make some sense of the fight for the branded handbag, it’s important to know that the limbic system and neocortex have an uneasy alliance, and that there is a constant struggle between the two as we attempt to balance powerful emotions, such as pleasure and fear, with rational behaviour.

Example: your boss storms into your office and shouts at you, your limbic system registers a threat and the fear associated with it, and the resultant instinct tells you to pick up a pen from the desk and bury it in his eye. Your neocortex tells you that this wouldn’t be a good idea as it could hamper your chances of promotion.

Another example, closer to the handbag: Sex is associated with the emotions of desire, intense pleasure, and, subsequently, reward. It would be heartening to think of this as part of the fun. However, it’s designed purely to ensure the perpetuation of the species. After all, if sex had all the thrill of picking your nose, few people would find any reward in it, and our species would quickly die out.

However, the neocortex (typically) plays situational handbrake in matters of procreation. It has helped us design and regulate socially acceptable circumstances around sexual behaviour, especially reward. It is the neocortex that prevents us ripping off our clothes and shagging like wild animals next to the fresh produce section in Checkers.

Back to the bag. The concept, even the image, of an expensive branded handbag generates powerful reward and pleasure emotions in the female brain because it is associated with open displays of opulence, a supposed marker for good breeding. It’s the female human equivalent of a peacock’s brightly coloured tail feathers. It’s why women may wear cotton undies from Woolies hidden under their clothes, but will openly show a leather bag from Gucci.

But cost is a factor with high-end bags; and so, again, the neocortex plays handbrake, and whereas they may be beautiful to behold and exciting to hold, they are usually returned, with lips pursed and shoulders sunken, to the shelf for someone more deserving to buy.

It’s when they go on sale, that everything changes. There is a rational underpinning of the emotional drive to own one, and as a result they become more desirable. However, because demand invariably outstrips supply in a sale, the emotions associated with the threat of access to what is perceived as an essential resource kick in. The result is the succumbing to a more active limbic system; behaviour becomes more primitive, and an unholy bun fight ensues. It’s nature and economics in action.

So, if you’re ever in a sale where high-end handbags are dangling within easier reach, feel free to elbow another shopper in the face in the grab for it. Then, with your prize in one hand, be civil and help her off the floor, offer her a tissue to wipe the blood from her nose, smile sweetly and say, “My apologies – I have an overly active limbic system. It’s the handbag in my brain.”

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 1 July 2012