Nature over nurture: How our brains are wired to react to a different world
Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest of rodents all the way to apex of humanity, exists a common understanding. Mainly, that intelligent life is wired to connect and communicate.
Pat yourself on the back. Your unique existence on this Earth is the trickle down product of innumerable generations of behavioral engineering and social development. From early Sumerians evolving their primitive grunts into unique and complex languages to medieval societies inscribing their knowledge into tomes and stories, the progress of humanity can largely be interpreted as a social feat.
Yet, it isn’t surprising to discover that other complex organisms, primarily but not limited to mammals, have also perpetuated generations of existence through the development of their own social mechanisms. From Dr. Alexander’s ‘Rat Park’ exploring how rats within social communities are better equipped to tackle opiate addictions to Cynthia Moss’s study of the elephant matriarch Echo and his prides capacity for future planning and teamwork, the animal kingdom has by and large shown that it too has the capacity to develop unique evolutionary advantages through social development.
All this speaks to the wider point about complex life gradually wiring itself to seek connection and communication, not just for the pleasure of conversation but in a more dire sense, for survival. This line of thinking enters a space known as evolutionary psychology or modern Darwinism and the discipline argues that although human beings today inhabit a thoroughly modern world filled with revolutionary innovations and technologies, they do so with the ingrained mentality of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.
In other words, Homo sapiens that emerged on the Savannah Plain some 200,000 years ago are seen to have developed and passed on traits that made their survival possible such as our instinct to fight furiously when threatened or our propensity to drive trade and share secrets.
Now consider your capacity for emotions like social anxiety and self-comparison, feelings that can often leave you hesitant and on edge. These emotional responses you experienced aren’t modern day flukes designed to make you feel bad but rather a hardwired Darwinian nudge to what your brain interprets as a ‘red flag’ environment. Remember that ill-feeling you got when you had to go to that party filled with people you didn’t know? That can basically be surmised as your inner caveman sensing a threat in the unknown. As the Harvard Business Review eloquently puts it “You can take the person out of the Stone Age, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person”.
I compute, therefore I am
Harvard professor and psychologist Steven Pinker once claimed “thinking is computation but that does not mean the computer is a good metaphor for the mind”.
Pinker’s assertion invites us to consider the extent to which our mind truly functions as a pre-programmed entity. I recommend readers interested in the ‘software’ side of the debate do some further reading on the Dichotomized Operating System Model (DOS Model), a theory which attempts to demonstrate how the entire brain may function as one integrated system with the purpose to help us make decisions on an ongoing basis to reach our goals.
For now, I’ll summarize the main process the theory surmises. According to the DOS Model, the evolutionary process has divided our brain into two sections, each dealing with information in a particular way. One section is used for logical information processes and the other section for storage and retrieval of experiences. Dialogues within and between these two components are the birthplace of our verbal and non-verbal thoughts and communication.
Such dialogues help us make decisions for our current and future experiences like that particular decision we discussed earlier about going to that party with people you don’t know. Through the dichotomy of these components, the model explains mechanisms and processes underlying fundamental mind phenomena under a single framework, making it a comprehensive albeit simplified account of the inner workings of the human mind.
Consider how feelings of anxiety can vary from person to person, with some people experiencing it more than others. Using this theory as a thought framework, we can see one side acting as the particular processor or ‘program’ for anxiety, while the other side can be seen as the storage or ‘input’ necessary for program to execute its original function.
Most of us will experience forms of anxiety but the potency largely depends on our experiences or past traumas for which the processing side communicates with as its input. It’s the reason why depression and other social disorders have been historically misdiagnosed — we failed to see the mind as a mechanism that can break rather than an irregularity we can quickly fix back into standard function.
Although Pinker warns of using this comparison, comparing the brain to a computer is an increasingly tempting way to break down the mystery of the mind and its functionality. I can’t help but wonder how this will apply to the neural interfaces of the future. The simplicity of frameworks like the DOS model are important because they help us better understand the evolutionary logic that defines ourselves, our actions and our interpretation of the world around us.
So far, we have discussed how the brain via natural selection has evolved both behaviorally and systematically to empower humans to fear, prevent and process threats in their surroundings. We also discussed earlier, how the brain of our hunter gatherer ancestors, through an immense amount of time, has wired itself to process information and experiences in a particular way for survival. However, it’s also important to be mindful that these reactions aren’t just limited to a handful but to a myriad of unique feelings and situations.
By being more mindful about your thoughts, you can begin to identify why you feel a certain way. For instance, the reason we harbor negative feelings from social isolation can largely be interpreted as a defense mechanism our caveman ancestors developed at the early stages of human social development. Without the protection of the collective, separation from the tribe or village of the past most likely translated into imminent death by predation or starvation.
Similarly, without our compulsive need to compare ourselves to one another, humans wouldn’t feel compelled to compete, work hard, and strive for the success of themselves and their families. It’s good psychology nowadays for one to avoid comparing herself to her peers yet with science we can interpret this inherent need to do so as another of the many survival mechanisms hardwired into our minds. These reactions might not always help us but its important to understand their inherent purpose through evolutionary design.
Next time you feel anxious, take a step back and rationalize the emotion within the wider space it inhabits. Which are the conditions that can be interpreted as evolutionary threats? You might find this approach helpful in calming your nerves before your next big date or job interview.
Epilogue for the future
As the evidence in this blog post suggests, the brain we have today hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. Moreover, up until the industrial revolution, human civilization trotted somewhat consistently down a developmental path. However, its difficult to dispute that in in just 200 years, humans have achieved more progress than ever previously imagined.
Today, disease and predation have by and far been eliminated from the modern environment. Once small villages are now large bustling metropolises accompanied by a globalized transportation network that can traverse previously unsurpassable oceans and mountain ranges. Moreover, our ability to communicate with one another is no longer reserved to the physical realm with interconnected devices shuttling digital information to the heavens and back. We dream of multi-planetary space travel and strive for the ultimate wedding between mind and machine.
Pat yourself again on the back, this time for your ancestors that paved the way through research, innovation and implementation. Large swathes of people no longer need to worry about the unknown because the unknown has largely been illuminated and conquered. You would think that with all this progress comes a utopic sense of emotional relief for our historically wired brain, yet the statistics tell an increasingly different story.
People today are more anxious, lonely, and depressed than in any other generation. Previous generations fought global wars, deadly diseases, and the looming risk of famine. Today, the struggles of the modern world are largely defined as social issues and still we suffer.
As we venture into the world of ever-more technological advancement, we must not forget the bindings of our past. I fear our brains will be geared for a race they are not prepared to compete in — a techno-evolutionary treadmill that is simply too fast for the slow and naturally selective process that has formed our brains thus far. As more abnormal, godlike technology descends upon us, we must ask ourselves how obsolete are we prepared to make the subconscious mind? Yet, this is a topic for another day.
Alessandro is an aspiring product & UX designer with a passion for tech and gaming. Subscribe for more coverage on his latest insights and curiosities.
“Thinking is computation, I claim, but that does not mean that the computer is a good metaphor for the mind. The mind is a set of modules, but the modules are not encapsulated boxes or circumscribed swatches on the surface of the brain. The organization of our mental modules comes from our genetic program, but that does not mean that there is a gene for every trait or that learning is less important than we used to think. The mind is an adaptation designed by natural selection, but that does not mean that everything we think, feel, and do is biologically adaptive. We evolved from apes, but that does not mean we have the same minds as apes. And the ultimate goal of natural selection is to propagate genes, but that does not mean that the ultimate goal of people is to propagate genes.”
― Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works