The Survival Advantage of Big Brains
From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense that your mind races. You are one of the survivors. How did you come to be so lucky while coming from a species that is deficient in so many ways compared to other animals? You don’t hear or see so well, you are not that big or strong, or fast, and you are not good at defending yourself…
What you have of course and what has allowed you and your fellow humans to gain absolute supremacy in the animal world is a big and enormously powerful brain.
Over 3 million years, humans and our hominid forebearers cultivated and harnessed the power of their brain for a singular purpose, to survive. Physical survival (at least until reproductive age) had nothing to do with well-being, peace, fulfillment or freedom from fear, suffering and despair.
The massive power of our brains put to use exclusively and perpetually in the service of one goal, to stay alive for another day.. We got exceptionally good at asking and answering the moment to moment recurring question “Where is the threat now?
Those of us who became best at this tended to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation thus fulfilling our only evolutionary goal. Might our early ancestors have imagined a world in which they could direct their brains in other ways? Most certainly they did. The gradual emergence of art, the gathering around a fire, the sharing of stories and humor surely gave a glimpse of life outside of the scanning mandate. But theses times were sporadic and limited.
Disadvantages of Big Brains
So what about now? What about YOU and today? You are now one of more than 7 billion human residents on the planet. There is no need for us individually from an evolutionary perspective to live our lives in a survivalist manner. You are out of the food chain and have no predators. The majority of people on earth live with a level of security and physical well-being greatly surpassing those of our ancestors and a vast percentage in this country and others live in a place that would be an unimaginable paradise to them.
Creating Threats in a Vacuum
What have we done with this? Have we re-imagined existential threats and superimposed them onto our lives? The threat of loss of status, position, wealth, health, friends, recognition,life meaning and personal direction, self identity, the pursuit of fame, wealth, excellence, success, parental approval and love can individually or collectively “feel” as existentially dire as feared by our ancestors and so we continue to scan for these in the hope that we can outrun them
In addition there is the question of “Who am I?” This question we have also sought to answer with our thinking brain by scanning the endless categories of our lives, our work, family, interests, politics, values and friends. When one or more of these categories falls out of balance, as they always do, our thoughts can tell us that danger is close at hand.
Become Aware of Thought Patterns to Change Them
So what does all this mean for you today and for your life? First off, having the awareness is hugely valuable. We cannot change patterns of thought and behavior that we are not aware of and that happen automatically. With the knowledge you can begin to notice when your scanning tendencies are hijacking your life and well-being and causing anxiety and depression.
Recognizing the Mind at Rest: Mindfulness
Second, you can also begin to notice moments (even if they are very intermittent and brief) in which the scanning is NOT taking over you. In these moments of “no thought” or when your mind is at rest you will likely experience what at least begins to approximate a sense of stillness, peace and well-being.
Disconnection: Being Part of All Life
You will notice that it is completely independent from outside events or achievements or brilliant thoughts. It comes rather from just being enough exactly as you are and as a part of life. In these moments you may also briefly disconnect from the normally rigid and all important concept of “my life” and rather experience being part of all life and being extremely comfortable with this.
Some of these concepts may feel threatening in themselves. “I don’t want to lose my ability to think,”I don’t want to lose my sense of who I am” But over time you may learn that there is no threat of that and it is more of the manufacturing of threats that we have become so good at.
Small Steps Toward Peace and Equilibrium
All is one step at a time. For the moment, plan to take a walk alone in nature. Experience the non-judgement of the natural world around you. Take some calm deep breaths. Be still for a moment and gently allow your “mind chatter” to quiet and still. Try ten minutes. A little goes a long way.