Psychoadaptation VIII: Cognition, not teeth and claws

Unlike other animals, the human animal is poorly equipped to defend itself against predation. In a one on one battle for survival against a wolf, mountain lion, or other deadly beast, the human animal stands little chance. Sharp teeth and claws will tear our tender flesh, ripping apart muscles, tendons, and other biologic features that otherwise allow us to move freely and work in our environments. Nature, however, is not really that cruel a mistress. She has indeed prepared us to survive our planet’s hostile environments. Not only has she allowed us to survive, she’s given us the most powerful tool ever designed by her loving hands, the cerebral cortex.

The human brain is our defense, and cognition is its venom. Through countless cycles of natural selection, the human brain has evolved to the point that it allows us to dominate the planet like no other creature. The purpose of evolution is of course to permit reproduction. Thus, so long as an organism reproduces, its life can be said to be successful, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Yet, the power of the brain and mind have allowed us to do so much more. Not only do we survive, we design and build technological tools that no other creature on this planet has ever attempted or is even capable of attempting. Certainly, other creatures are intelligent and use tools. For instance, crows and parrots use sticks to manipulate their environments. Dolphins and other whales have brains the size of humans and no doubt have mastered their environments in unique ways. Only humans, however, have taken cognition to another step, producing tools that allow us to communicate across continents instantaneously, cruise the skies to visit relatives abroad, and even explore space.

Evolution is an amazing phenomenon, using life and death as tools to craft the perfect organism by environment fit. During times of need, our brains have allowed us to master difficult situations. Selection pressures, such as floods, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters, including famine and plagues, forced nature to reshuffle its genetic deck until the best mutations of genes are produced; the ones that give humans the edge over environment. Yet, when selection pressure ended, and humans finally mastered their environments, there was little left for our minds to ponder. We turned, then our cognition inwards, toward solving personal issues. Although it seemed that selection pressure was over, it merely changed its battleground to person instead of people, each of us struggling to conquer our own personal demons to survive and reproduce; to produce the next generation.

Environments differ across our planet. Humans have divided themselves into countries to protect land and culture. Some countries have been more successful at protecting their citizens than other countries. In the most successful countries, people have a great amount of leisure time, as there are few difficulties to conquer. With ample food and shelter, attention turned to recreation. Our powerful minds, however, seek things to do, and therefore we began to create modes of entertainment that are so magnificent that it would have been hard for a genius even a generation ago to imagine. These inventions, though, have costs. Even the mere acquisition of technology is expensive, and individuals have found themselves in terrible debt due to their desire to possess the best technological advances.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once said that desirability is disequilibrium. He was right; the more we desire, the more we create distressful conditions that trigger our fight or flight responses the way our ancestors felt when faced with a predator or a tough enemy in war. For Piaget, disequilibrium was but one consequence of the human-environment interaction. Disequilibrium occurs when cognition is not adequate to assimilate experience. In former times, when facing a predator, our ancestors experienced disequilibrium because they faced death. It was only when they solved the situation, freeing themselves from possible death that their disequilibrium disappeared, but only until the very next dangerous encounter came their way. With our powerful brains, and our abilities to review our past performances, and our forethought to plan for the future, our ancestors came up with amazing plans and designed weapons that would allow us to escape predation. Using tools, they designed homes that reduced the risk of predation. They mastered fire for both cooking and as a defense against predators. They designed ballistic weapons that distanced themselves from direct contact with enemies. With each advance, humans found ways to decrease disequilibrium and return the body to equilibrium. Disequilibrium is a very distasteful physical as well as psychological state. To understand it, my reader, one must only think back to any single personal experience in which the Self encountered a difficult situation that seemed beyond the Self’s ability to escape, physically or mentally. If that situation resulted in physiologic symptoms consistent with the fear response, one experienced disequilibrium.

This fight or flight response is nature’s way of preparing the organism for action and potential harm. Blood is diverted to important muscles, and diverted from less useful processes such as digestion which are not necessary for fighting. Pupils dilate to permit better access to light. The heart races to ensure adequate oxygen delivery to muscles. All of these processes are defensive in nature and expensive. As such, disequilibrium is a response to threat. Thus, of course, when there is no possible bodily harm, we should not have to experience the fight or flight response, yet we too often do. If one has ever had to prepare for a presentation (public speaking), particularly one involving evaluation, one knows that the fight or flight response can occur in situations not involving potential for bodily harm, unless of course one is not a good speaker and the audience may throw fruit at the speaker, but I digress there! Thus, although the body has been designed by evolution quite well to fight an enemy or flee predation, this biologic preparedness is not always useful, with many negative consequences for health if triggered too often.

In the modern world, particularly in well-developed and wealthy nations, there are fewer life and death situations for most. It is important to note that this is not the case for everyone, for even in a country as rich and powerful as the United States, many individuals living in poverty struggle with issues of safety every day, and in those cases we are thankful for the fight or flight response and its physiologic consequences. Yet, as our nation seeks to improve the welfare of all its citizens, many of these dangers have begun to diminish, leaving the fight or flight response to respond to different threats, namely those threats to the self. The self is a latent construction that we can only know by its objective indicators. For instance, I know who I am through my physical characteristics such as my height, skin complexion, eye color, and foot size. I also know my Self through my accomplishments, such as my academic degrees, sport skills, and the products of my research. I know my Self from my possessions, including my car, skis, and computer, and my clothing. I know my Self from having a family. All of these indicators have helped me become who I am, as well as all of my opinions on various matters, from politics and religion, to my views on development and even the self. As these concrete and abstract phenomena constitute my Self, they are part of me, and therefore my possessions.

Unlike my skis and other material possessions, though, which can be replaced, we humans hold on to our beliefs about who we are and what we can do with a strong grip, a grip that we refuse to release. As human beings, the definition of the Self is so important to us, that we will defend it against any force that seeks to contradict it. Thus, we strive to ensure our Selfs can assimilate as much experience as possible, even if the information contradicts our views of ourselves or our worldviews. Every threat to the Self causes a strong response, just as when we were faced with predators or cataclysmic events. In response, we defend. We cannot stand disequilibrium, and therefore will do whatever it takes to defend the Self from insult, that is at least until we find a way to either assimilate the experience or have the mental strength to change our views to accommodate the new experiences. It is that capacity to adapt our views that differentiates the successful human being from the less successful. Unlike prior times, however, when failure to adapt was a genetic failure that resulted in the extinction of a given genetic line, human beings survive despite their willingness to adapt. Thus, our world is filled with individuals with different levels of Self health. The healthier Selfs are those who are willing to adapt and change their Selfs to accommodate the data of experience, having what I like to call a liquid self. This liquid self means the individual is not tied to any one definition of the self, understanding though, the true nature of the Self from a historical perspective. Thus, the healthy Self knows from where the Self came, including culture, country, and parents, and this does not change. The healthy Self knows its history of accomplishments and failures and uses this as motivation for the future. Yet the healthy self is able to change the Self’s Self-definition to accommodate different environments, for the healthy Self understand that life is an ever changing process, like the point in the river on which one focuses the Self’s gaze; water flows through that point, ever changing but ever being the same.