An ABC for navigating modern life with an ancient brain

Thomas Hobbes wrote that earlier forms of human existence were characterised by “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Without a doubt, the human brain developed in times when threats to life abounded and survival was a real issue. Like other organisms, humans evolved behaviours and corresponding brain structures that maximise the chances of survival. It has been said that we are hardwired for survival and not for happiness. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Our brains are “plastic.” They change based on the experiences we have. We can learn to deliberately change the wiring for the better. For example, beneficial changes to the brain are shown in fMRI scans of people who go through the MBSR program, such as increases in the size of the hippocampus (a part of the brain associated with learning and memory). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s look at three ways we are hardwired for survival. This is a cursory glance at some very sophisticated biological processes and omits detail and nuance. As you read on, think about what these aspects of our biology might mean for our deep happiness and sense of life satisfaction.

1.  The fight/flight stress reaction. The human brain (like that of other mammals) has an effective and automatic physiological reaction to perceived threat. Biological resources are harnessed to meet the perceived threat either through fleeing or fighting (and as a last resort – freezing). It matters to our survival if we miss a threat, and so humans have evolved to be more likely to misperceive an environmental stimulus as a threat when it is not, than vice versa. Check it out for yourself: Have you ever had a situation where you are unsure how your boss (or a potential mate or an old friend) thinks of you, and the next time they see you, they scowl and walk straight past? For most of us, the same cascade of fight/flight chemicals is triggered, as if we had been physically threatened. And often enough we amp up the stress reaction through ruminating on the situation.

2.  The negativity bias. Decades of psychological research has shown that the human mind focuses on negative information more than positive information. We evaluate negative information as more important than positive information, and negative information is remembered more easily than positive information. Check it out for yourself: Have you ever had a performance appraisal in which you are told that in nine areas you are performing exceedingly well and that there is one area where there is some room for improvement? What do you go home thinking about?

3.  Strong craving. Recent neuroscience has shown that the brain’s reward system is heavily dominated by processes linked to wanting rather than the pleasure of reward. This supports what the ancients knew: “It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most [wo]men live only for the gratification of it” (Aristotle). Check it out for yourself: How many of us are able to resist that mouthful of chocolate cake, notwithstanding that we are no longer hungry? Craving comes with a compulsive energy that keeps us chasing the desired object.

These three systems were very important to keep our ancestors alive and ensure human survival. Their effectiveness comes in part from their compulsive nature. When caught in reactivity, negativity or craving, modern humans are being controlled by ancient processes which are often not adaptive to the contemporary context.

What to do? Fortunately, we can learn to engage with these aspects of our existence more skilfully which over the long term promote greater choice and more adaptive responses.

Here is a simple ABC* to help start the process of intentionally re-wiring the brain for greater happiness and life satisfaction.

A: Acknowledge and allow – not yet act

Whenever we notice that we are caught in reactivity, negativity or craving it is vital to insert a pause and acknowledge what is going on. This is not easy to do, as these states are not mindful states. Rather, they are reactive states not supportive of reflection. So, let’s not beat ourselves up when we notice that it is hard to be present when caught in one of these states. When we are aware of reactivity, negativity or craving, there is an opportunity to bring attention to the experience: what are the thoughts connected to this experience, what are the emotions and what are the bodily sensations? Observing these dimensions of the experience with some curiosity and even care, helps to loosen their grip. We step back and witness. We allow the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations to be experienced, and we know that observing them does not mean we will act on the impulses.

B: Broaden perspective

Having interrupted the usually automatic behaviour that results from reactivity, negativity or craving, a space is created. We notice the way that these states narrow our focus. Usually we are preoccupied by the discomfort of some emotion (such as fear, anxiety, hurt) and often we are also feeling a lack (not being safe, not being good enough, not having enough etc). This next step further loosens the grip of these states. From an acknowledgement of reactivity, negativity or craving we broaden our perspective. This broadening of perspective takes different forms depending on the situation. We might broaden to acknowledge that right now we are safe and protected. Broadening perspective might be to notice the things that are going well in our life. It might be to consider the needs and feelings of other people. It might be to consider our longer-term goals. From this more balanced perspective we are better placed to respond rather than react compulsively.

C: Cultivate positive emotions, qualities and strengths

This third stage is a process of self-resourcing through the cultivation of beneficial mind states. The positive psychology research is showing what has been known for millennia: the individual as well as the group benefits through the cultivation of qualities such as kindness, gratitude, compassion, courage, awe, creativity and connection. Add to this the cultivation of our own particular strengths and engaging in meaningful activities and we become much more resilient. Resilience means we are less likely to fall prey to the compulsive quality of reactivity, negativity and craving. There are numerous ways to engage in a systematic cultivation of positive emotions, qualities and strengths such as journaling and attending retreats. (An opportunity for another blog.) This third stage can be practiced at any time.

So, the good news is, bit by bit we are able to use our mind to change our brains for the better. We move from the passenger seat – driven around by reactivity, negativity and craving – to seeing them for what they are and making skilful choices when they arise.

Happy brain sculpting.

Kathryn Choules (PhD)

* This ABC was configured by Fiona Gauntlett and myself, based on the work of many who have gone before us.

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