Sometimes you don’t know how fast you are moving until you are forced to stop. COVID-19 has forced a lot of us to slow down and adjust our routines. Luckily, as a result, I have been able to allocate more time to reading and exploring ideas. For this Psychealth article I’m going to do something quite different: I’m going to present a theory that has some practical implications for our lives. It’s a heavier read than usual but I hope you find it interesting and it fosters some curiosity and discussion.
The origins of our human mind and our unique cognitive abilities remain very much a mystery. According to Harvard professor Marc Hauser, four traits distinguish the human mind from those of animals: generative computation, promiscuous combination or ideas, mental symbols, and abstract thought.
Generative computation enables humans to create an almost unlimited variety of words, concepts and things. Promiscuous combination of ideas allows the blending of different areas of knowledge leading to the creation of new laws, social relationships and technologies.
Mental symbols encode sensory experiences both real and imagined, forming the basis of a robust and complex system of communication.
Abstract thought enables us to contemplate things beyond what we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. But why did these advancements occur to homo sapiens and not other human primates or mammals? What is the purpose of the human mind? Here are some ideas to explore. The development of the human mind had to serve a major and critical purpose in order to be favored by evolution.
The human mind was NOT necessarily needed for connection and collaboration. Various animals have the ability to connect and communicate with each other to coordinate tasks, create social hierarchies, share, and establish roles.
The human mind was NOT necessarily needed for love. Mammals for instance can create meaningful bonds with partners, procreate, and nurture and support offspring. Love is often described as a felt sense and can be experienced with the absence of conscious thought.
The human mind was NOT necessarily needed for joy. According to psychologist Martin Seligman, ‘animals clearly experience positive emotion.’ It’s not a uniquely human experience.
The Will to Live
What the human mind was needed for was: safety and protection. Homo sapiens evolved from arguably the most dangerous area in the world, Africa. Unlike many of the other creatures and animals that inhabited the earth approximately 180,000 years ago, anatomically similar homo sapiens couldn’t rely on the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ to remain safe. We weren’t strong enough, fast enough, and couldn’t climb trees quick enough to evade danger.
Would you rather live in a region with bears or lions? Big cats and other dangerous predators within Africa posed a unique and unprecedented challenge to homo sapiens for survival. The development of the human mind allowed us to create tools and collaborate with other homo sapiens in sophisticated ways in order to thwart danger and remain safe.
The development of conscious thought within the mind also led to the experience of anxiety: the anticipation of harm and danger. It allowed us to conceptualize a series of outcomes or reflect on past events. Anxiety ensured we take our safety seriously and acted accordingly.
Challenging moments imprint on us; our minds want us to remember them so they don’t happen again. Unlike fear (perceiving a threat within the moment), anger, stress (the physical sensation of distress & eustress) and sadness, anxiety seems to be uniquely human. Other animals rely on the fear response to ensure safety and this has been enough for them to survive and thrive in their environments. According to Hauser, animals are only triggered by real objects or events, never imagined ones; they are restricted to the present. Unlike other animals, the anxiety human’s experience can complicate, enhance, and sustain trauma.
There were other human primates that roamed the earth around the same time as homo sapiens that didn’t benefit from the cognitive revolution that occurred approximately 40,000 years ago – a factor that arguably led to the ascension and global expansion of the homo sapiens and the demise of the other human primates. The incredible advancements we have seen over the past 4,000 years (agriculture, science, philosophy, etc.) are the exciting and random by-products of a mind that was developed for safety.
Researchers have made some strides in regard to where conscious thoughts are located within the brain. Interestingly, it’s not just in the more evolved forebrain/neo cortex. “For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness,” said lead researcher Michael Fox from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre at Harvard Medical School back in 2016.
The brainstem plays a pivotal role in regard to the fight, flight or freeze survival mode aimed at keeping us safe and this area of the brain is collaborating with the more evolved areas within the neo cortex. Side note: I think the mind is embodied, mainly within the neurons of the brain and heart. But the energy of the mind is projected beyond the body – there’s an interconnectedness of all living things; it’s metaphysical and the field of quantum physics is still trying to make sense of it. But that’s a topic for another day!
How this knowledge helps us?
This theory explains why we human beings have a negativity bias – we are incredibly effective at assessing and fixating on potential danger, real or perceived. A negative thought can take precedence over a positive or neutral thought.
These ideas shed light on how the default setting of our mind often involves anxiety: anticipating harm and danger, fixating/ruminating, planning ways to keep ourselves safe, focussing on elements of our lives we don’t have control over, etc. When the mind is dormant it will gravitate towards these types of thoughts. That’s what it was designed to do.
When left unchecked, our minds can create a world of trouble for ourselves and for others. It highlights how our minds can complicate our ability to engage in life and having meaningful connections with others. There’s a tendency to ‘overanalyze’ as a coping mechanism to deal with challenging situations that can further exacerbate the feelings. These ideas help account for the increase in the prevalence of anxiety in our day due to the complexity of life and divergent sense of ‘danger.’
Anxiety’s purpose is to keep us safe; unfortunately, it often does too good of a job and convinces us to avoid situations we should be engaging in. As psychologist Reid Wilson stated, we need to ask ourselves: is it a sign of actual danger or is it just noise? If it’s just noise, we should choose to step into that discomfort. We don’t want anxiety to dictate or determine what we choose to do or not do.
The Good news!
When harnessed effectively the mind can increase wellbeing. Unlike other animals, we have the ability to perceive elements of our lives as meaningful and learn and conceptualize more sophisticated information.
We can observe, reflect and reshape our thoughts and behaviour for the better. We can choose to perceive our lives favorably! We have the ability to analyze a situation for positive elements and be grateful.
It highlights the importance of establishing and fostering relationships and how those connections can provide us with a sense of safety and security. It also highlights the importance of practicing mindfulness: noticing the thoughts non-judgmentally with curiosity.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy describes it well: you are not your thoughts and feelings- you are the space and place where the thoughts and feelings occur. The goal is often to ‘get out of our minds’ and engaged in the present.