Saturday, September 25, 2010

Evolutionary Psychology

I've recently been a bit negligent with regard to posting on this blog because I've been going through a period of pretty rapid personal growth. It's been painful, but I think that I've managed to make some real progress in dealing with my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has been a pretty complex job---it's involved work with a therapist, in-depth reading on PTSD, and hours and hours of communication with a friend of mine who has offered real help based on her own problems with another issue.

One other thing that has really helped is Michael Dowd's book Thank God for Evolution. There are a lot of good things in this book, but one thing that I find really useful to consider is his take on "evolutionary psychology". As he explains the term, modern brain physiology says that our brains consist of evolutionary "over-lays". This means that discrete elements of our brains evolved during different parts of our evolutionary history. This means that there is a part of our brain that is very similar to the brains of fish and reptiles, another that is similar to that of lower-order mammals, another that is very similar to monkeys and primates, and another part that is pretty much unique to human beings.

What this means for our lives is that each part of this multi-layered brain has a direct impact on our consciousness. This means that the "lizard brain" is what pushes us to be aggressive and competitive, which is pretty important to basic survival. The lower mammalian part of the brain is what drives our emotions and allows us to bond with other creatures in order to create social relationships such as parent/child, husband/wife, team/player, and so on. Since lizards and fish don't nurture their young or work in groups like wolves or cows, this new ability was necessary to ensure the survival of lower order mammals.

Once primates came onto the scene, however, more complex stuff became important. This included things like how to get along with other primates because the pecking order in monkey troupes is really important. This led to the complex way our minds constantly fusses and tries to work out different "scenarios" that might result if we follow a specific type of action. This leads to the noisy "internal dialogue" that Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism call the "monkey mind".

Finally, human beings have the added complexity of being able to think of their own place in the world through self-awareness. Evolutionarily, this is important because it allows humans to not only react to situations, but to also make long-term plans that allow us to do things like plan for the future and work out complex strategies based on different scenarios. These in turn allow us to do things like create societies and technology.

The problem for people is that these different elements of our make up don't always work well together. Every person has their own particular issues and it is very common for the "lizard brain" to sometimes overwhelm the higher mind, which leads to things like problems with anger management or getting into stupid sexual entanglements. For others, their "monkey minds" cause problems either by constantly harping on potential problems, which leads to anxiety disorders (like PTSD) or that old academic problem: "analysis paralysis". Other people become so caught up in their higher brain functions that they end up making crazy life choices based upon their crazy idealism. In a way, I think that this explains the people who become terrorists---they so obsess about the particular idealized view of the world that they lose all perspective about it.

Another problem is the mismatch between what our brains have evolved to do, and the world we find ourselves in today. For the overwhelming majority of human existence, our primary environment has been in small hunter-gatherer groups. We're supposed to be hunting woolly rhinos, not writing computer code, dammit! I think that this explains why governments seem to fixate on trivial issues while ignoring honking huge issues---for example, why is it that people get so upset about gay marriage while turning a blind eye to climate change? I would suggest that it is because our brains evolved in a situation where the interpersonal relationships in the small tribe were very important whereas things like the weather were "just there" and not something that we had any control over at all.

When I look at my own personal consciousness from this point of view, I have a lot more forgiveness for the times that I have not lived up to the ideal that I expected of myself. I also find that I have a lot more forgiveness towards other people now, because I understand how much of their behaviour is governed by urges and instincts that are not appropriate to our present reality---yet which are still very hard to ignore.

This isn't to say that I now give everyone a "free pass" on life's responsibilities. People still have to learn to "do the right thing". But I now have a greater appreciation of the difficulties involved. I hope that this new appreciation will eventually give me some wisdom that might make it easier for myself to progress towards a greater integration of these different elements in my being.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

After stumbling upon your blog and spending a substantial amount time here I just wanted to say thank you. Like most people I seldom leave comments on blogs but I guess it is my turn to post a word of appreciation on behalf of many.