The Most Powerful Computer on Earth
The human brain is the CPU (central processing unit) of the human body. It is responsible for maintaining homeostasis (stability and equilibrium) of all the body’s operating systems. In addition, it is the information processing, problem-solving organ that has enabled humans to navigate life on Earth for tens of thousands of years. For our ancient ancestors, this job of the brain was not very complicated. Simply, the brain needed to keep our ancestors out of danger, thereby increasing the likelihood that they would survive long enough to have offspring, thus ensuring the continuance of the human species.
The Legacy of our Ancestors
Let’s look at what the brain of our prehistoric ancestors had to be able to do to keep them safe. Back then, as most dangers were mortal in nature, first and foremost the brain had to keep humans alert and continually on the lookout for potentially life-threatening situations. This translated to constant worrying: “Do I have enough food?”, “Is my shelter strong enough to keep predators at bay and protect me from the elements?”, “What was that I saw behind that bush?” and more. Second, our ancestors’ brain had to remember every bad, potentially life-threatening event that had previously befallen them or a tribe member: “When Gronk went into that cave he never came out!”, “The last time I ate that berry I got really sick.”, “Last week my neighbor raided my home and took all my stuff.” Finally, to increase the likelihood of their survival, our ancestors had to have help from other tribe members to procure food, build shelters and fight off enemies. Summarizing , for our ancestors to survive, they had to be:
- Always on guard (worried) for potential danger.
- Adept at remembering negative past events.
- Constantly figuring out how to fit in with their group.
Early humans who were lazy, who didn’t constantly worry, who weren’t stressed, or who only remembered pleasant events often did not survive long enough to pass down their DNA. Hence, those of us currently walking this planet are most likely the recipients of DNA from our species’ most prolific worriers.
Brain 2.0 in a 3.0 World
By now your brain might be thinking, “Where is he going with all this?” Well, even though tens of thousands of years have passed since our ancient forebears roamed the earth, and while the physical and social environments have radically changed, the modern human brain is still prioritizing worrying about potential danger, remembering “bad” events, and fitting in with a group. That is, we are owners of a supercomputer that, for the most part, is constantly generating worrisome thoughts.
Modern-day neurobiologists, using cutting-edge techniques (e.g., f-MRI), have been measuring the activity and functioning of the human brain for the past several decades. Through such studies, neurologists have estimated that the average human has between 30,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day. Yes, an astounding number. Obviously, most of these thoughts are fleeting and, for that matter, subliminal in nature (below our awareness threshold). Yet all these thoughts, subliminal or not, have a significant influence on our day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute behaviors.* Over the years, in the fields of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and theology, this incessant cerebral chatter has often been referred to as “monkey mind.”
*Behaviors are anything a person does both physically and psychologically (e.g., walking, talking, sweating, thinking, emoting, etc.)
The concept of “monkey mind” has been attributed to the patriarch of Buddhism (Siddhartha Gautama) and has been portrayed as the mind being filled with “drunken monkeys” fighting for attention and, in general, creating a chaotic and often, very unsettling mental state. With so many competing thoughts, it’s a wonder how any of us function as we make our way through our day-to-day lives.
So, to summarize, all human activities are, in essence, being controlled by an organ (our brain) that was very effective thousands of years ago but has not adapted as quickly as our lived-environment. As a result, our brain often elicits undue worry, anxiety, and stress which in turn causes us to be both emotionally and behaviorally reactive vs. functionally responsive. To our added detriment, these stressors have some very deleterious effects on our physiological health (I will be exploring the reactive mind and the physiological effects of stress in future blogs).
So, with all the above in mind, your brain might be thinking, “What can I do to navigate my way through life and to have the rich, rewarding, and meaningful life I desire?” You may ask, “Am I doomed by my evolutionary neurobiology, that is, the DNA inherited from my ancestors? How can I keep my “monkey mind” from dominating my day-to-day existence?” The good news is we are not doomed and, in fact, we can learn to control and even benefit from our mind’s abilities of analysis, problem-solving and introspection. Both scientific and anecdotal modern-day studies have clearly shown that one of the best ways to facilitate our psychological and physical well-being is through the practice of mindfulness. I am sure most of you reading this article have heard the term but may have very different impressions or understanding of what the practice of mindfulness entails. There are many definitions of mindfulness that one can access. My favorite two are:
Paying attention with openness, curiosity, and flexibility.R. Harris
Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.J.Kabat-Zinn
Contrary to what many people believe, mindful awareness is not a passive exercise of emptying one’s mind of thought. It is not an exercise in relaxation or trying to be peaceful. On the contrary, its function is to increase one’s awareness of what one is thinking and feeling and how we relate to our thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, with this tool in hand, we can increase our presence in our own lives, become more aware of how our thoughts and feelings influence our behavior, become less reactive and more responsive and get closer to being the person we aspire to be. From my experience as a practitioner, a student and a therapist who urges and assists my clients in understanding and engaging in the practice of mindfulness, I have come to understand that the most effective path to mindfulness is practice. Mindfulness does not come naturally to anyone. It is a skill that takes time, effort, and commitment (I will be addressing the topics of committed action as well as deliberate practice in subsequent blogs.) In summary, we are walking around with a supercomputer in our head (our brain) that spends most of its time looking out for danger and generating tens of thousands of thoughts each day that influence how successfully we navigate our daily lives. Rather than allowing our brain to dictate our behavior (both internal and external), we can actively solicit the help of our brain in achieving our life goals as well as facilitating both our psychological and physical wellbeing through the practice of mindfulness.
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life.
- How to Meditate: A practical guide to making friends with your mind.
– Pema Chodron
- 10% Happier: How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works – A true story.
– Dan Harris