Thursday, August 22, 2013
This is your brain on evolution
For most of history, in the cultures I know about (only a fraction of earth's cultures, should say), the heart has traditionally been thought of as the center of our humanity. In my society, especially here and now in the 21st century, we think of the brain as the arbiter of everything that makes us who we are. I've been wondering why.
Back in the 20th century we were very interested in the brain, but until the old paradigm of hard wiring was replaced by plasticity as the theory du jour, brain research was more or less a study in mechanics, therefore perhaps not as fascinating as now. I'm sure the brain has always been interesting to some researchers, of course.
There's a way in which all this focus on the brain has lead people to think of the brain as separate from, or above, the body. I just googled "brain and body." Among the 402,000,000 results are links to a yoga franchise called Brain and Body, as well as many articles about brain research. The language of these sites makes clear this idea that the brain is separate from the rest of us.
There's a NOVA page called Brain + Body. Hmm. Other titles from the google search: "Feeding the brain and body", "How opioids affect the brain and body", "How does marijuana affect your brain and body?" There's a book named, "Change Your Brain, Change Your Body." A Huff Post headline: "Why the brain loves dancers over 60."
Did you know there is such a thing as brain to body mass ratio? I didn't.
I could go on, but it's probably not necessary.
I assure you, your brain is not separate from your body. It is human tissue, just like your elbow, intestines and lungs. Your brain is inside your body, inextricable except in sci fi movies. It is.
Is there an elbow to body mass ratio index? Of course not.
What has brought us to this obsession with the human brain? I'm sure you can guess I have a theory about that. I surely do.
I think we're hyperfocused on the brain at this moment in history because we're in the first stages of a major leap in evolution. That leap will involve the human brain.
We cannot continue the evolutionary strategy that depends on larger and larger brains as we have in the past. Our heads are so huge, we can barely be born as it is. No, in order to evolve, we must learn to use our brains differently. In fact I believe we are doing just that, stretching the limits of brain use through technology, as well as focusing our thinking with meditation, yoga and other contemplative arts.
Evolution brings chaos as the old pattern breaks down to make way for the new pattern. The jump we're now involved in has already yielded quite a bit of fallout. ADHD, OCD, and the entire spectrum of autism are some examples, as is Alzheimers and other dementias.
Theories about evolution of all kinds include the idea that it's a crucial part of adapting to changes in the climate. It's ironic that we have contributed so heavily to the climactic shift, now in full gear. I mean it's ironic that we were such a big part of it, because now we must hurry up and evolve, or die because of it.
We surely must evolve - or die - hence we decided the brain is plastic and can change. We're scanning and measuring and watching our brains like hawks. We're multi-tasking, we're texting while driving, we're skipping from channel to channel when we watch TV. We are bombarding ourselves with information. Our brains are adapting to the tsunami of incoming information. But we're also learning to quiet the mind through contemplative practices. Meditation, yoga and the martial arts are practiced by more of us than ever before.
We're connecting with each other in unprecedented numbers through the internet. The relationships we're now able to maintain would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Our connections here and on social networks contribute to our leap forward. We're creating a global version of a neural net.
We're changing very quickly now. Hand an ipad to a 5 year old - they know exactly how to use it, or if not, they'll soon figure it out. Hand the ipad to a person of my age. For us, there is a learning curve. Even in two generations, the way our brains work has changed dramatically. Though the fallout is alarming, it is inevitable. We must change or die. We're changing.
We're evolving. May we prevail.