Is it possible that the root of what distorts our thinking and what clarifies it, what hurts us and what might save us, are the same?
Over three million years ago a human-like species came down from the trees to live on African savannas. Anthropologists speculate the species was forced from the trees by environmental factors, but that is not clear. It is clear that they were relatively puny compared with the carnivores of the time and thus vulnerable. How did they survive? Maybe the ability to stand relatively upright and look off into the distance was extremely helpful. They learned the importance of cooperation, without which our species would have faltered or died out. They learned how to use their hands in new ways. They could hunt together, share food, and also signal to each other if good food or a threat was nearby. The engine of this complex cooperation was communication via language.
We physically evolved in ways to support these traits. For example, our hands reshaped into more delicate instruments capable of a precision grip. Our jaws became smaller, so we could speak a greater variety of sounds, but we needed tools to tear into some foods. Our brains grew in size and then complexity, neurons folding under and over each other, increasing the number of possible connections between brain cells. The bigger brain meant human babies had to be born before their brains were fully formed, which meant a longer period of dependency and vulnerability and a stronger need for care and loving attention. Yet, it also led to an increased ability to learn and adapt. The brain grew to be extremely social.
To be so social, the human brain developed a default position. When we’re not focused on a task, our brain switches into a social mode of thinking. This mode includes several abilities important to being human. For example, we can create simulations in our mind of other beings as individuals and what they think and feel. This also allows us to imagine all our memories and experiences as belonging to one distinct individual we call Me. We can distance ourselves from the present to inhabit other times and places. We can fly across continents in our imaginations, visualize implications of our actions or how to create things never seen before. We can imagine what might bring pleasure or pain, go wrong or right, how people might respond to what we say or do, or if they might like us.
But as James Kingsland, in Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment, (a great book, by the way) makes clear, we pay a price for this default mode of the brain. We can also see this in the violence of headline news. What we consider our greatest gifts can also be a source of our greatest destructiveness and suffering. The ability to leave the present, leave behind the reality of sense experience, can cause us to get lost in and obsess over our mental creations. We can spend a good part of our lives wandering in this default realm.
Our languages allow a great depth of detail to be added to our mental wandering and fantasies, making them enticing substitutions for reality. We can replace the real people standing before us with mental simulations not much different from characters created in a novel. Or we can do the same to ourselves, imagining we are awful people or monsters or that other people think us monsters. A delusion is the imagination turned up high and projected onto the reality before us. Paranoia is fear enhanced by distance and delusion. Creativity has always been the ability to imagine what doesn’t now exist so it could be made possible. Therefore, it can lead to wondrous visions and achievements, but also is never very far from mental illness.
Kingsland imagines hooking the Buddha up to our newest technology in order to discover how his brain might have worked to turn off the Default Mode Network (DMN) and end the ruminations and suffering the network can cause. For example, he describes recent experiments which show how meditation practices that develop a deeply focused attention can switch the brain from the default mode and its concern for how everything relates to one’s self, to a more objective, selfless attention created by what’s called the Task Positive Network. When we feel the sense of flow or being “in the zone,” this network is fired up and the DMN is turned down. Those engaged in meditative practice report and demonstrate a greater clarity of perception, a sense of well-being and less delusion about others, than people not so engaged, especially those who spend a good deal of time wandering in the DMN. They can switch more readily and appropriately from one network to another.
You might think of evolution as “survival of the fittest,” change leading to an improved species—but scientists point out this improvement is in terms of being better fitted for a specific environment. Our physical and social environment has changed greatly over the last one hundred thousand or so years. We adapted to fit in with groups of maybe 150 individuals, surrounded not by human built structures, but raw nature and many other mammalian species. In a way, our social environment has changed more quickly than our physical bodies could adapt to it.
So, as Kingsland points out, it shouldn’t surprise us that evolution might have burdened us with so many ills. But it also provided potential solutions. We have the relaxation response, which can turn off the fight-flight-freeze response and allow us to relax once danger or a tense situation is over. We have other-oriented networks and deeply focused modes of attention to counter the Default Mode Network. Hopefully, more and more of us will begin to use meditative and other practices to learn how to switch more smoothly from one network to another. We can learn how to replace delusion with increased clarity, selfishness and complacency with love, hate and prejudice with compassion, and thus understand better what we need to do in any situation.
*I wrote and scheduled this post before all the deaths of last week. If I wrote this today, I would be much more emotional.