Humans are known for resisting change. Whether it’s a change in living situation, career, or letting go of a harmful relationship. But change is necessary for our survival.
What to Expect:
- Change: What we actively resist
- Adaptation: What are are actually good at!
- Theory of Evolution: What we disagree about
- Dissecting a Brain: What’s in it?
- Putting it together: What’s it all about?
- Change is hard for most and resistance builds when change is on the horizon due to habitual tendencies that value low risk activities.
- Adaptation is a concept we’ve been practicing, consciously or unconsciously, for million of years; it postulates that we adapt to the environment we are placed in. Adaptations are either short-term and temporary or long-term and permanent.
- Our brains are adapting and evolving this very second and has been for millions of years.
- Our brain contains “closed” systems, allowing little modulation from the environment and “open” systems, whereby through learning, we can adapt these systems to benefit our environment.
- Change, in the form of adaptation, has been the essence of our survival for millions of years and continues to play an important role. We have forgotten this.
Change: What we actively resist
Our optimal state is to keep doing what we have always done as energy efficiently as possible. We get attached to what we have always done. It becomes a habit - a routine - that we seek to continue without fail.
Uphill battle: Fighting the forces of change
When the forces of change begin to arise, our instinct is to stall it, to “take control” of our lives. We stifle the forces that bring about wholesale change even though it may be good for us in the long run. Instead, we’re inclined to opt for small, incremental change - baby steps taken with adult level caution to minimize perceived risk.
The process of resisting change creates conflict within that is not a pleasant experience. Initially, we’re successful in suffocating the forces that seek to create change. We feel empowered and our spirits are lifted momentarily.
After a few successful attempts, the conflict within peaks. Resistance builds simultaneously. Tension is at a maximum.
This is where we are, currently, in our lives. Turmoil aptly describes the inner world.
So why run away from change? Why not let go and allow change to occur? Why go through the pain of this resistance?
Because of the mind -- our thoughts, memories and emotions. The mind holds on to the known to reduce likelihood and magnitude of risk. Our minds are wired to play it safe in all aspects of life. Not naturally. But over time, it develops a belief and habit that minimizing risk in every decision and action is optimal for our survival. Until a drastic event breaks this belief.
So what is the mind? How is it related to the brain? How is it related to the human body?
To understand the mind, we have to delve deeper into understanding the brain and to understand the brain, we turn towards evolution. Why? The assumption here is that the mind exists as a result of brain functions, which has developed through millions of years of evolution. But before we dive into evolution, we should really talk about...
Adaptation: What we are actually good at!
Adaptation is a fundamental concept that forms the basis of the exploration of the brain. The idea is adaptation -- change that results in a better fit to the immediate environment. Humans have constantly elevated their situations by adapting to the environment surrounding them. This leads to short-term and sometimes temporary adaptations to the immediate environment. For example: when we learn how to speak Spanish, we have adapted our cognitive and behavioral functions to the immediate environment -- the study abroad program in Guadalajara.
On the other hand, humans also undergo long-term and permanent evolutionary adaptations such as changes to the functional capacity of our brain. For this reason, an understanding of the evolution of our cognitive functions is critical in getting to know our brains.
Theory of Evolution: What we disagree about
The concept that the brain has evolved over millions of years through natural selection has been around for a long time. Charles Darwin introduced the theory of evolution in his monumental book Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. It is now widely accepted amongst biologists and the scientific community as a whole. But as with everything, the theory of evolution is unsettling to some, even in modern times.
Based on his theory, the brain has evolved from a simple organ into a complex human computer capable of amazing feats. To adapt to the immediate environment, new brain structures and new patterns of behaviors were created while old structures were modified to function in new ways.
However, what’s most impressive and unusual is that the original brain components that met challenges a millennia ago still exist, even though those challenges no longer do. One such example is the fight or flight response that has evolved from the appearance of a predator in the jungle. Let’s crack open a brain to understand the different parts and their functions briefly.
Dissecting the Brain’s Evolution: What’s in it?
What researchers have found is a hierarchical system, consisting of lower and higher functions. The higher functions are typically an open system i.e. modifiable, while the lower functions are more closed i.e., set in stone. Higher functions are completely dependent on their lower counterparts to function at all. However, the lower functions can operate independent of the higher functions.
The old brain, the old-mammalian brain, the cerebral cortex
The lower levels of the brain -- the extremely old brain, common to all mammals, includes the top of the spinal cord, the medulla, the pons, the reticular formation and the cerebellum. As higher forms of life was originating on Earth, the first brain evolved to provide functionalities related to basic “life support” -- controls for breathing; blood pressure; heart rate; attention; movement patterns such as walking, running and fleeing.
Imagining a day in the reptilian life and decoding their habitual master schedule, the lower levels of the brain also deliver a series of daily master routines -- such as going to sleep, waking up, seeking shelter, engaging in periods of hunting interspersed with periods of inactivity, basking in the sun, and exhibiting social displays such as courtship.
As humans evolved into social beings, an intermediate layer in the brain developed The second layer, the old-mammalian brain, an evolutionarily newer brain evolved when mammals discovered that organization and formation of communities was beneficial for the survival of the species from attacks of a predator or a parasite alike. As humans congregated and social activity increased, the brain evolved this intermediate layer that’s primarily involved with emotions. This brain system includes the hypothalamus, the thalamus, the amygdala. Feelings of anger and fear, hunger and satiety, and basic instincts that underlie social behaviors such as maternal nurture, playfulness, forms of competition are modulated by this limbic system.
Surrounding the limbic system is the cerebral cortex, the most evolutionarily recent part of the brain. In human brains, this is by far the largest structure, taking up 80 percent of the brains’ total weight. The functions of the cerebral cortex are vast - these include handling sensory information and control of the skeletal muscles. These two functions are localized to certain regions of the brain and account for only about 25 percent of the total cerebral cortex. The remaining 75 percent does not appear to have localized functions - meaning those regions are involved in the integration of sensory information and with higher cognitive functions such as planning, thinking, and reasoning.
Putting it together: What’s it all about?
As our brain evolved and developed higher functions, humans have become sophisticated beings that continually require adaptation to the environment. We incrementally changed ourselves over many years to pacify our abusive partner. Now it’s hard to let go of a situation that’s no longer fitness increasing. We adapted ourselves to the cubicle environment in the pursuit of fame, money, power or some combination thereof. Now it’s hard to remove the stagnancy that seeped in over the years.
As we become comfortable with lack of change and crave certainty in every moment, we come into conflict with the very nature of our being. Change is important for our survival, to make us a better fit to the immediate environment.
We have unfortunately forgotten this.