Let us continue our theoretical reconstruction of the evolution of the human brain. In my other articles I have forwarded the idea that consciousness was created as part of the earliest decision making mechanisms (Life, Evolution & Consciousness); that the algorithm generating the behavior of the earliest creatures that had behavior that was not a complete product of their mechanical structure involved a ‘Self’ that could feel pleasure and pain.
Danger causes pain, or the perception thereof, makes the ‘Self’ effect behavior that will take the organism away from the danger. Desirable things – like food – generated pleasure or the promise thereof, which cause the ‘Self’ to strive to attain them, so that it may experience the pleasure. How to distinguish? For that we have some wiring in the subconscious which interprets incoming impulses (usually nerve impulses, in humans) and gives them a ‘survival’ value, which is interpreted into an emotion (like fear or yearning) which acts on the ‘Self’.
One part that this simple decision making mechanism needs is memory – the capability to learn from experience, to better interpret reality into what aids our survival and what may obstruct it. I’m assuming – boldly guessing – that after the first element had evolved, the ‘Self’, with its most basic wiring, memory was the second element that evolved (and we can only guess how early the earliest ‘Self’ appeared and how it was initially implemented, or go by my formula and try to identify the earliest forms of ‘behavior’).
Learning. We know how learning works – experience is accumulated, for each experience the data, plus the attached emotional value, is evaluated, then it is processed and stored forever in memory. Then our brain uses various mechanisms to reference these memories whenever it feels it is needed – it happens pretty automatically, we don’t really control it, but it’s a balanced process: all memories, all data, are evaluated.
This is how we get ‘programmed’, or, it’s one of the ways, the one we praise and learn about in school. You could say this programming is ‘benign’. I intend to propose, in this article, that there is another kind of programming going on in another, more primitive brain, which I choose to call The Second Brain. Second, because I’m – merrily – assuming it evolved right after the most primitive form of brain had evolved – the one that had just a ‘Self’ with two wires coming out of it.
We already know why evolution keeps the old designs around – if it works or even if it doesn’t cause too many problems (like the appendix, for instance), it stays. Things evolve along a certain historical line, often preserving not an optimal solution but a history of adjustments that, each of them, worked well at the time and that still seems to be doing the job. If it proves a failure it will not be fixed, it will go extinct and something else, better adjusted, will replace it.
In any case, it seems that primitive brain is still doing its job, as far as mother evolution is concerned. I propose – and I will provide my reasoning a little later in this and in future articles – that it operates on a very simple principle: it identifies life threatening situations, when one occurs it takes over, takes control over our actions – in part or in full, depending on the severity of the situation – and it records our experiences in a very unique way: as patterns that indicate danger and that contain clues on how to avoid it in the future. When a similar situation to the one in the traumatic recording occurs, it again takes control of our actions – usually partial control – and makes us behave in a way that makes no sense, is irrational, unless you consider the memory causing it.
A life threatening situation, one that triggers the magic impulse that says we have failed in our survival efforts, can be an injury, or it can be a perceived loss of something – an asset – that is important to our survival: a relationship, a valuable possession, a position, etc. Failure to survive interprets in our brain as pain, either physical, resulting from injury, or psychological. This recorded pain becomes trauma, and all trauma is, ultimately, psychological.
Just a few quick words on survival: first, we survive merely to procreate, as far as our genes – and our subconscious wiring – are concerned. But of course, in order to do that we need to not just not die, but to live, to be as successful as possible, as alive as possible. We need to have as high a social status as possible, too – for it is an asset, it determines how welling other people will be to cooperate with us – and these things takes us father away from the possibility of death, and increases our chances to mate, too.
So, losing any one of them means we have failed to survive. Losing our health, or some of it, also creates the same effect. When this happens, the Second Brain kicks in, and records the experience. It seems almost like a fail-safe mechanism, like an old, well-tested, generator, that kicks in when the main power fails, overriding our ‘higher brain’ when it becomes overwhelmed with pain.
Someone once defined ‘sanity’ as the ability to make the optimum decisions based on ones knowledge and intelligence. I’d add – and cultural biases and such – but we could easily put those under ‘knowledge’. But, basically, this definition takes this concept out of the mire of cultural relativism, in which it had been unjustly marooned for so long, and gives it new meaning: our goal is procreation and survival. Sanity simply means doing it properly, within the given restrictions.
So, why would anything go wrong? There’s the old nature-nurture debate again. Of course, genetics could be at issue here. They do generate the basic patterns of our behavior. But neurotic behavior seems too complicated to me to be just the result of a defected gene – or a few – and also, a research has been released linking mental illness with childhood abuse, recently. I would also recommend you listen to Prof. Sapolsky, in this fine series of lectures, explain his stand (and that of a growing consensus of modern scientists, I dare presume) on the delicate balance of genetics and environment (what I call ‘programming’).
I will reiterate – as far as the large set of equations that are evolution are concerned, neurosis is not a problem, if it’s a side effect of a mechanism that assists survival. There may be a way to construct a better one, but it might never happen; if it adversely effects the ability of a minority to survive, just like the accumulation of bad mutations does, it is then flushed out of out genotype – or out of our collective traumatic experience – and life simply goes on. Evolution does not concern itself with suffering; it’s just part of what makes us tick.
Before I conclude this article and proceed to explaining this mechanism a little more in detail in my next one, I’d like to provide 2 examples of it in action. Two things we are familiar with from everyday life.
PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – is one vivid example of traumatic programming. It is an extreme and very obvious case of trauma. What basically happens, in PTSD, is the exposure of an individual to extreme stress in a life threatening situation, or to repeated physical threats. Key to this experience is also the sense of being unable to control the threatening situation, being helpless – another aspect of failure. We notice it because it happens late in life (usually over the age of 10, which is a late age as far as socialization goes), to an individual who’s personality is already formed. Therefore the trauma cannot be ‘absorbed’ into this formed personality very effectively, we’re no longer pliable enough for this to work, so it remains like a big, ugly, wart, on its surface.
This condition causes the afflicted person to keep re-living the trauma, to be stuck in a reaction pattern to a recording in their Second Brain. The behavior displayed is obviously subconscious attempts at ‘doing better this time around’, while still expecting the remembered threat to reemerge.
The coat-and-Tie Experiment
My other example is centered around a little parlor trick involving hypnosis. In this experiment the subject and the hypnotist are sitting on stage, in front of an audience. The subject is put in a state of hypnosis and is given the following suggestion, by the hypnotist: ” When you wake up, whenever I put my hand on my tie, you will take your coat off. When I take my hand off my tie, you will put it back on”.
The subject is brought out of hypnosis. The hypnotist lays his hand on his tie. “It got warm in here”, says the subject, and takes off his coat. The hypnotist takes his hand off his tie. “I think there’s a draft in here”, says the subject, and puts his coat back on. So it will continue, with the subject responding to the hypnotic suggestion, taking his coat on and off as the hypnotist puts his hand on his tie and then removes it, all this time trying to rationalize his behavior. This reminds us of neurotic (and/or psychotic) behavior, at least some of us; but what’s happening here?
I think psychologists will tell you that it’s not completely understood…. there are conflicting models…. but I did not come here to scorn their science. We see here an instance of programming that is unlike the regular programming we undergo in our day-to-day lives: learning, accumulating experience and data about the world. In this instance we see a person actually entering commands into another person’s brain, so to speak. That person acts upon them without understanding the causes for their behavior – more so than usually, I mean – and, since all behavior needs justification, he makes one up, every time.
Again, this reminds us of neurotic behavior. The rationalization. The programmed, semi-aware, response to certain stimuli. And the use of stock phrases by neurotic people, when they are stressed.
Actually, #3 is visible here only if you know a little more than I’m revealing, at this point (can’t do it all at once). The phrase entered as a command, by the hypnotist, might be partially revealed by the patient, in their speech, if pressed. I believe that this is a unique case of a much broader phenomena that it directly related to mental illness – the way language effects our traumatic response patterns, being the very important carrier of information that it is.
Like I said before, traumatic events leave imprints in a certain part of the brain – imprints that later generate patterns of behavior. What’s the connection to hypnosis? Well, trauma happens when we fail to survive. When hypnotized, we lose control of the situation, of what happens to us. this is a mild case of failure to survive, so the imprint will not be very powerful – indeed, the effects of hypnosis wear off, after awhile, even if not removed by the hypnotist with a cancellation command that must be entered with the original command. To make the effect more permanent the hypnotist should have caused a serious injury to the person under hypnosis. This happens in real life, and when we are at he very beginning of our existence, we are, as a rule, quite helpless – a condition which facilitates trauma.