Both of my sisters discovered this blog — The Oil Drum: Discussions about Energy and Our Future — as their lives began to change. They understand now that the future of the world we live in will have to be much different than it is now. Cindy sent me the link to this article, The Psychological and Evolutionary Roots of Resource Overconsumption Revisited, I could not read past the first reference without comment.
“Selfish behaviors are reward driven and innate, wired deeply into the survival mechanisms of the primitive brain, and when consistently reinforced, they will run away to greed, with its associated craving for money, food, or power. On the other hand, the self restraint and the empathy for others that are so important in fostering physical and mental health are learned behaviors – largely functions of the new human cortex and thus culturally dependent. These social behaviors are fragile and learned by imitations much as we learn language“. Dr. Peter Whybrow – “American Mania”
The first thought that jumps out at me from this internet page is that while we do learn specific languages through imitation, we begin this learning within our DNA. Children around the world are born with an innate sense for the syntax and the grammar of language. One could even suggest that humans are born with a destiny for speech, needing only the right food from within our environment to allow us to develop along the similar lines our ancestors did. What other kinds of sleeping giants lie within us waiting for the acts of participating in our own lives to wake them up?
Our genetics are interacting as we develop in the womb so that we are born knowing patterns and rhythms of sound and prosody. These patterns are based on movement and are subject to the same rules of rupture and repair as are every relationship in life. We are naturally motivated to seek increasingly complex expression of all of our abilities because it suits our expansion into our ongoing lives to do so.
To say that “selfish behaviors are reward driven and innate, wired deeply into the survival mechanisms of the primitive brain” seems misleading to me. Everything ‘wired’ into our brain requires the presence of all sorts of brain chemicals that basically work because they transmit signals. Everything that happens within and between the regions of our brain happens because something is being communicated through signal transmission.
We are left, as the hopefully increasingly more conscious and aware drivers of our own lives, with the free will and choice of what we notice and pay attention to, how we assess this information, and how we act and react. All it means to me when someone says this or that happens through our primitive brain is that our reactions are faster and more automatic than they might be should they run through the slower loop that runs through our conscious mind.
The difference between the fast loop of automatic response and the slow loop of conscious, informed response is that we are designed with a fast response that keeps us alive should our world become unstable, traumatic, insufficient and malevolent to better guarantee our survival. Increasingly conscious abilities, and the growth of the brain regions that allow them to happen, are the result of evolutionary advancements that we gained only as our environment became more benevolent.
Even the relatively late development of our spoken language abilities, as they came to us around 140,000 years ago, reflects this process. We spent all our years before that time figuring out how to endure and advance within the context of the world we lived in. Broca’s area of the left brain that is most often associated with language acquisition grew into its abilities over time because we needed to sequence our actions through hierarchical arrangements.
Only because we had learned enough to progress far enough that this region of the brain was developed enough within the context of our life in the world did we begin to achieve verbal language abilities. I believe this could only happen when we correspondingly could guarantee to mother’s and infants enough protection and sustenance in a benevolent world that mothers could engage in the kinds of intimate, time-consuming activities with their infants that allowed for patterns of spoken language to develop.
Through intertwining processes our bodies responded within our better world by allowing manifestation and expression of the FOXP2 gene that we no doubt contained within ourselves long before we became able to use spoken language. Yet long before this important stage of our evolution arrived our brains had already achieved sophisticated ways to communicate.
We had mirror neurons that allowed us to follow activities performed by others outside of our brains. When I watch someone else fill a glass full of water from a faucet all of the mirror neurons are firing within my own brain, mimicking that outward action as if I were performing it myself. These motor activity regions of our brain are tied to brain regions that allow us to specifically process information about tools versus information about people. Our brain built upon these mirroring, sequencing and recognition patterns in ever more advancing ways. All of them are designed to allow us to receive and send communication signals within the environment we live in so that we could live in it longer and better.
No matter how selfish our behavior may appear to be, it will always be based upon our being alive in a human body. Because we are a social species, all of our feel-good and feel-bad brain operations are channeled through our essential and fundamental attachment system brain networks. Complicated chemical interactions really do nothing but send signals back and forth between ourselves and the world we live in. If our evolutionarily mandated human attachment patterns are not formed strongly enough, all of the attachment system related chemicals within our bodies will simply alter for us what we are attached to.
We were designed from the beginning to feel good about what kept us alive as a species, and to feel badly about things that eliminated us. The more consciously we think we are living, the more options we seem to have at our disposal, the more distance we seem able to put between ourselves and our naturally designed abilities to know which is which. I don’t believe these choices are particularly based in our primitive brain. In fact, I even dislike that term.
There is nothing primitive about the human brain. It is the most advanced and sophisticated, most complicated and advanced construction known to be in existence. It is not a ‘thing’ that can be broken so that one part of it works exclusively without the rest of its parts. It built itself throughout evolution by adding on abilities as we were prepared to receive them. Only a tool can be broken. Our brain is part of our human body. It is alive. It is recognizable from the brain regions that know the difference between an object-tool and a person.
Our brain’s fundamental attachment system is designed to reward us for socially beneficial engagements. Variations in our responses to and within our social species have to do with degrees of bonding and aggression, dominance and submission, and with degrees of sensitivity and anxiety as we move through our environment. Being both a social species and a predatory one means we have always had to live within a paradox: How do we continue to find the balanced equilibrium of well-being without destroying ourselves in the process?
The concept of allostasis and allostatic load has led some researchers to considering that humans endure because we have included within our genetic codes the fullest range of possibilities related to being ‘hawks’ or being ‘doves’. We are not all the same. Some of us are ‘more one’ than the other and find ourselves consumed within our own patterns of thinking and action based upon what our own particular segment of our species’ genetic potential-for-survival has given us.
This fact does not make some of us right and others wrong, some of us good and others bad, some of us smart and others dumb. It means that if we all want to stay alive there are times when we have to stretch ourselves far enough to hear and consider things that others may know and want to tell us even though these things may seem foreign – and therefore objectionable — to us.
I have arrived full circle at the point where communication enters the picture. Mirror neurons enabled us not only to learn new and helpful activities from being able to see and watch what is going on in the environment. They allowed another activity of the brain to progress at the same time so that eventually the INTENTION of the action becomes clear. Even primates can achieve these new levels of understanding.
All of our preverbal communication abilities were based upon the interactions of our mirror neuron system and our growing “Aha!” brain abilities. These patterns found their way into not only bodily gestures and hand signaling, but also into evolved theatrics, music and dance. These advancing abilities to communicate found their way into our genetic codes, as Israeli researchers have discovered about dance.
Most importantly our abilities to communicate through any avenue possible has found its way into our arena of reproductive fitness indicators, not unlike a peacock’s display of tail feathers. Even these indicators themselves are communication signals. They exist on a continuum of ability that finds expression specifically in interaction with the environment. They tell us not ONLY about the fitness of an individual in that they can AFFORD the cost of these displays, but also signal to us the condition of the wider that the individual developed and formed in.
Just as we would look for life on a planet that is in a stable orbit around a stable sun, we would look to the benevolence or malevolence of the wider context of the environment that surrounded a person as they developed in order to determine how the cost of ‘higher’ displays were afforded for our species. The degrees of well-being for individuals are a communication about the degrees of well-being of the world any person interacts with. We are not links separated and divided, no matter how we might like to think about ‘selfish’. Even that perception is a reflection of a communication signal about the condition of the wider world we live in.
This thought leads me again to think about completed circles and bigger pictures. There are language experts who suspect that our advanced abilities to use the language of words evolved from our primate grooming behaviors so that more ‘others’ in our social group could be involved and participate in social exchange. As members of a social species we found chit-chat, gossip, humor and eventually storytelling to be rewarding activities.
Primate researchers know that the influence of malevolent environmental conditions during early brain developmental stages interferes with primate grooming behaviors. Experts on human brain development know the same thing happens to people. What is damaged for us is the formation of our emotional, limbic, social right brain. Both how we see people and how we see ourselves is altered as a result of inadequate social interactions with our caregivers from birth. The tricky thing is, nobody tells us this and hence we don’t know it.
When Dr. Whybrow states, “the self restraint and the empathy for others that are so important in fostering physical and mental health are learned behaviors – largely functions of the new human cortex and thus culturally dependent,” he is talking about the development of a Theory of Mind that was itself built upon safe and secure attachment interactions with early caregivers during a person’s early brain developmental stages. These early interactions were themselves signals of communication about the benovolency or malevolency of the world we were growing up in.
While we can call this learning if we want to, it is also crucial that we understand the early patterns in our life determine how our body-brain-mind develops on the genetic, molecular level. This is not something that is easily changed later on in a person’s life time. It’s supposed to be this way. Information communicated about either adequate or inadequate early worlds determine the development of people who are growing up to live in that same kind of world.
If we want to talk about self restraint, empathy and the new human cortex, we must understand that degrees of stress and distress existent in a person’s environment have already built themselves into the adult’s working brain a long, long time ago. Of course there is a wide range of possible developmental experience along the continuum of well-being from being formed in, by and for a world of plenty or being formed in, by and for a world of scarcity and deprivation.
All points along this human continuum share in common that they are expressions of a person’s interaction with the conditions of their environment. I suspect that acknowledging this bigger picture of how people choose or do not choose how they use their brain might be helpful to those who are privy to critical information about the bigger picture of the condition of the wider environment and wish to communicate, or signal, this information to others of their species.
Starting small and thinking bigger is just another aspect of understanding and then being able to change context. We cannot assume to know about other people if we refuse to acknowledge what we are looking at. If people are having troubles using self restraint, empathy and their new human cortex, maybe they were formed in an entirely different version of an early attachment to the world. Trying to communicate to those who have brains built in safe and secure early attachment environments will be very different that trying to communicate to those whose brains were formed in unsafe and insecure attachment environments.
Yes, I am talking about the operations of two differing kinds of brains. The more stress and distress we experience ESPECIALLY as it involves our social attachment networks, the harder it will be to understand the value and meaning of attachments to the bigger, wider world and to the future. Having the ability to expand one’s consciousness has always been, from the earliest beginnings of our species, contingent upon our living in the most benevolent world possible. I think we must understand this about ourselves and one another before we can find any way to transmit information about ‘the environment’ that might matter most.
I simply think about it this way. If I wish to enter into a meaningful conversation with anyone I have to first determine the other person’s degree of safety and security within the whole environment that they live in. If I think communication is solely about the operation of some ‘higher brain function’, I will be wasting my time. I need to know what this other person is standing on. Are they walking along a gossamer thread suspended over a monstrous abyss without a safety net underneath them? Are they standing upon a piece of ground that is shrugging itself violently in an earthquake? Is this person I wish to talk standing securely on safe ground? Or are they walking on water?
Perhaps I am sitting on my living room sofa and watching these people move by outside my window. Their bodies are cut off from my view. All I can see are their heads. Maybe they are turned with their backs to me and I cannot even see the expression on their faces. How can I then know enough about the world beneath their feet to be able to tell how best to address them?
We cannot afford to cut people off at the head, separating them from the body of their reality. We cannot simply approach them as if they are nothing more than some intellectually competent or incompetent beings either above us or below us. We all live in our bodies. Those bodies are nothing if they are not about billions upon billions upon billions of information transmission signals. Most importantly, they are continuing to exist in bodies with feelings based on accumulated information that was built into them even at conception in the form of their DNA.
If we wish to talk about the living environment of our larger body, the world we are a part of, we must at least be able to connect the bodies and the heads of the people we wish to inform. This involves a kind of tender openness, humility, compassion, respect and wisdom that we are at risk of losing in this new world we are all rushing into. To the degree we are losing our connections within ourselves and to one another, we will correspondingly fade away from our connection with the environment we live in.
The demise of healthful, life-promoting attachments and connections can do nothing but bring us to harm. We can throw intellectual labels about being greedy or selfish around all we want to, but that will never be where our truest wisdom lies. We are designed as a social species to seek reward through attachments. We are geared as a predatory species to consume in the process. In the end it is always about doing the best we know how to survive and endure, both as individuals and as members of our species.
We cannot exist in a body and escape the cycles of life. Our own reproductive fitness is a reflection of the fitness of the environments we live in. Those environments in turn influence how reproductively fit we have become. We do not have the luxury of separating one from the other. Our abilities to both receive and send communication signals effectively are one of our primary reproductive fitness indicators.
We are caught this paradox: Our ability to communicate depends on the condition of our environment at the same time the condition of our environment has formed how well we can communicate. One can shout the ‘truth’ into the wind until their mouth goes dry and their throat aches, but if the people targeted cannot hear what is being said to them – because their own personal world was not and is not a safe and secure one on the most meaningful of attachment-related levels – it’s most simply an ineffective waste of time, effort and precious human resources.
The small world of the individual cannot be separated from the big world of the wider environment. The wider world’s environment cannot be disengaged from the individual.
I can, therefore, only conditionally agree with Dr. Whybrow’s statement: “These social behaviors are fragile and learned by imitations much as we learn language.” The foundation of our social behaviors is built into the very structure and operation of our early-forming brain. These ‘behaviors’ become permanently implanted within us in the form of mostly unconscious, implicit body-based memories that then guide us on our most basic levels for the rest of our lives.
Our early experiences can never be erased. What we ‘learned’ from them about ourselves in the world affected us on the molecular level and determined (and continues to determine) how our genetic codes manifested themselves. We can never automatically believe that any changes we want or expect ourselves or anybody else to make are necessarily going to be magically easy.
Lasting and meaningful change has to stem from the center of who a person is, not from the periphery of what they intellectually think. This center is not fragile unless we have suffered from extremes of severe abuse during our early childhoods. Otherwise, our center as social beings lies with the security of our attachment system that both built our brain-body-mind and was built into us. This attachment system center governs all aspects of how we interact within our life — be it with ourselves, with one another, with the spiritual being of our understanding, or with the whole web of life.
It’s time now for classroom participation. Get a sharpened pencil, a piece of paper and an adequate length of string. Tie the string onto the pencil. Hold the empty end of the string at the center, tighten the string and drag the pencil around the paper until you have drawn a full circle. What happens to your circle if your center point is not firmly anchored? What happens to your circle if you run your fingers that held the string at the center point all the way up toward the end attached to the pencil and try to draw yourself another circle.
Which circle would you rather be included in if it meant the survival of your planet? I personally would prefer the big wide one that originated at the center rather than the pathetic one that resulted from coming up too short. Improving the quality of safe and secure attachments at people’s centers will do more toward creating lasting positive change than we can yet imagine – unless we look all the way back to our species’ beginnings and see that once we all knew exactly what I am talking about.
Our patterns of attachments cannot be separated from who we were, who we are, or from who we are becoming – not as individuals, as cultures and societies, as members of our species, or participants in the entire circle of life. I have no doubt that recognizing the quality of our attachments so that we can improve them will improve all conditions on our planet. Being able to do so is within our power and our potential. Actually doing so might well be what saves us.