EVOLUTION, NEURO-SCIENCE AND THE QUEST FOR SUSTAINABILITY

Part 1 in a Series

BY Jim Harding, Ph D

There’s a new TV series about “the enlightenment”. It’s not about the renaissance and the rise of science after the Middle Ages in Western Europe. It looks back further, to the changes in worldview that occurred across many cultures in the ancient world, around 400-500 BC.

It takes Buddhism out of the context of comparative religion, where it is often placed because of its origins in Hinduism, and places Buddha alongside Socrates and Confucius, associating them all with the growth of reason, insights into natural law and growing awareness about the responsibilities that come with this emerging awareness. All three philosophers lived within expanding urban environments where people were being challenged to outgrow their parochial roots. The new realities gave birth to different versions of what came to be known as the Golden Rule.

This is timely, for our path to sustainability will rely on this ongoing enlightenment. Some believe we are re-entering such a period as we grapple with the challenges of diversity and sustainability, though it’s hard to see this with all the ecological, cultural and religious blowback we are facing. Some political tendencies, especially nativistic nationalism, make it seem like we are in a period of regression and reaction. The desperate migration of humans escaping warfare, failed states, climate change or burgeoning inequality certainly doesn’t seem to display much human enlightenment.

The present clash over whether Britain should or should not, stay in the European Union (EU) reveals the desire of many to consolidate and restrict identity and immigration in a period of growing human encounter. It’s is very different to say “I am and want to stay English” than to say “I am European”. It’s probably time we simply said “I am human”.

If we look beneath all this, we could be on the edge of a leap in human species self-awareness. As in the time of Buddha, Socrates and Confucius, this requires letting go of fixed identities. This time we likely have to discover why we need and how we form identities and to learn to do this in more peace-loving ways. The global human rights movement is a good beginning. There are no guarantees, but if we don’t embrace the enlightenment in our midst, the leap to a more sustainable life will be much harder to make.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ROOTS

In the mid-1960s when I was studying psychology, the field was in a fast transition into physiology. We had a joke at the time that “first psychology lost its soul, then it lost its mind and now it is having trouble with its behavior.” Psychology was leaving behind religious “explanations”, Freudianism was discrediting simplistic views of human consciousness, and many naively thought that we were primarily a bundle of conditioned behavior. The physiological model was still mechanistic, asserting that the “mind” could be explained by brain function and function was mostly reduced to brain structure.

We have now learned about what’s called our neuroplasticity: our ability to relearn brain-body functions damaged through strokes, diseases or accident. In our unequal society, not all patients have equal access to the medical-therapeutic programs required for this profound rehabilitation; I have a friend who suffered from encephalitis who didn’t have access to timely, persistent recovery-rehabilitation. Our new awareness about neuroplasticity, that what “fires together wires together”, is however already inspiring us to try new ways. Insights into PTSD, mindfulness training and advances in neuroscience have all mushroomed. This deepening knowledge has immense implications for us moving forward.

NEUROSCIENCE

We have discovered much about our evolved brain. We don’t have different brains, as some allege, rather our central nervous system has co-evolved through different species-stages. We could say we have a reptilian brain, a mammal brain and a primate brain all wrapped up in our human body.

The reptilian brain is associated with the cerebellum, and is tied to regulating bodily function. The mammalian brain is associated with the limbic system and is tied to memory and emotion. And the primate brain is associated with the neo-cortex and is tied to thought, language and imagination.

We couldn’t be fully human without all these capacities. Our so-called higher functions, which we associate with culture and science, require memory, emotion and bonding, and none of this would be possible without a self-regulated body. Our capacity for sentience and for compassion depends upon this interwoven “whole”. I can’t help wondering why traditionally-religious people sometimes seem reluctant to learn about how such an intricate, interwoven web-of-life has evolved on this planet.

Our interwoven brain has a long and continuing history. The first brain developed with fish starting about 500 million years ago, the second came with small mammals about 150 million years ago and the third came with our primate ancestors only about 2 or 3 million years ago. This interwoven brain has evolved into an integrated system with inter-connected neural pathways. It’s no wonder that we sometimes feel caught between animism and having delusions of human separation and supremacy. Neither view of human nature or human prospects is sustainable; it’s time to let go and move on.

SELF-REGULATION

With this new knowledge we seem able, though probably not quite ready, to better understand what and who we are. Romanticized and other delusional views will continue to erode. And we can become much more content with who and what we are as a human species if we more fully accept how we ended up with, and learn to live with, our capacities and vulnerabilities.

We don’t want to misunderstand or mystify the interwoven brain as though it is like a programmed computer; it is not. We are a hormonal, social and spiritual being all at once and we are highly challenged straddling all these dimensions. We sometimes “go off the rails”. We know that we can go off the rails collectively, as we’ve done with genocide, preparing for nuclear war or with climate denial. Our increasingly interdependent species, which has the technological and economic prowess to alter the bio-physical processes of evolution itself, now clearly needs to make a big leap.

Next time I’ll explore what our “split brain” may suggest about our species’ capacity to become more sustainable.

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