How We Think
Understanding how the brain works, and why, is the key to solving many of our human struggles. It provides the foundation for individual mental health, self esteem, and self compassion; and collectively for empathy, compassion for others, communication, a better approach to justice, and ultimately for achieving world peace.
Imagine a world in which...
Emotions as a Survival Mechanism
Like the body, the brain and its many mechanisms evolved because they helped us to survive and reproduce. With regard to how we think, one of the most important mechanisms it developed was that of emotions.
As an organism, survival is a top priority. Even lizards and fruit flies know how to survive because their programming tells them what's good for them. But as an organism capable of thinking complex thoughts and making decisions by evaluating many criteria, we can get a little more confused (or rambunctious!) than a fruit fly in making our decisions. To help us out, the brain developed emotions.
The limbic system in the brain is where emotions are generated, via neurotransmitters (chemical signals). Certain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, seratonin, and oxytocin are associated with positive emotions, and a "toward" response: if your brain thinks it's good for you, then you are encouraged to like it, approach it, desire it, and so on. On the other hand, norepinephrine and a reduction in dopamine generate an "away" response, associated with fear, dislike, anger, and other negative emotions.
It's no surprise that we have strong emotional responses to "primary needs" stimuli (things like air, water, food) that keep us alive. But David Rock has brilliantly classified five social domains which our brain, having developed in circumstances where social interaction was vital to our survival, treats as equally important as biological needs: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.
Friends and Foes
The brain also classifies people into two groups: "friend" and "foe." Because both cooperation and competition have been instrumental forces in our evolutionary history, it was important to be able to distinguish between these categories. And because it's a higher priority in the brain to avoid danger (you only get to die once) than to seek rewards (you can always try again if you're still alive), the cautious default is to categorize everyone as a "foe" until proven otherwise.
Even more interestingly, the brain creates a dichotomy wherein "friends" are understood and interpreted by using the same parts of your brain you use to think about yourself, but "foes" are thought about using different parts of the brain than those used to think about yourself. Since our ability to empathize is basically our ability to consider things from the perspective of the other person (in other words, what it would be like if we were them), we are essentially incapable of having empathy or compassion for people who fall into our brain's "foe" category.
This is the real key to world peace, and the reason why the evolutionary biology perspective is so powerful. On top of the basic premise of our shared ancestry, by recognizing that nearly all human interactions are driven by the same neurotransmitter reactions to the same categories of social stimuli (albeit with differing outcomes based on the infinite combinations of circumstances in which they were fostered), we can not only increase our understanding and compassion for ourselves, but expand that to acknowledge and embrace our shared human condition, and see just how much like us other people are.
A person's overall degree of mental health (necessary to make a positive contribution in the world) is proportional to the degree to which they perceive themselves as being fundamentally like others. A person's capacity for empathy (our ethical compass) is directly proportional to the degree to which they perceive others as being fundamentally like themselves.
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