You Can Feel Safer

Feeling safer is a tricky subject, with complications that can be both personal and political.

(This topic and others are explored in depth in my interview with New Dimensions.)

Yes, there are real threats out there, but evolution and other factors have left a lot of us walking around in a kind of paranoid trance. I’ve been there myself, and the results include feeling less peaceful and hopeful, and more worried and cranky, than is right.

So I hope you find this post helpful.

Is There Really a Tiger in Those Bushes?

Consider these two mistakes:

1.  You think there’s a tiger in the bushes, but actually there isn’t one.

2.  You think no tiger is in the bushes, but actually one is about to pounce.

Most of us make the first error much more often than the second one, because:

·  Evolution has given us a paranoid brain. In order to survive and pass on genes, it’s better to make the first mistake a hundred times rather than make the second mistake even once; the cost of the first mistake is fear for no reason, but the cost of the second mistake is death. Continue reading

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21 Ways To Turn Ill Will to Good Will

My recent posts have highlighted two very powerful, yet opposing forces in the human heart: in a traditional metaphor, we each have a wolf of love and a wolf of hate inside us, and it all depends on which one we feed every day.

On the one hand, as the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. Continue reading

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How Did Humans Become Empathic?

Empathy is unusual in the animal kingdom. So empathy must have had some major survival benefits for it to have evolved. What might those benefits have been?

Empathy seems to have evolved in three major steps.

First, among vertebrates, birds and mammals developed ways of rearing their young, plus forms of pair bonding – sometimes for life. This is very different from the pattern among fish and reptile species, most of which make their way in life alone. Pair bonding and rearing of young organisms increased their survival and was consequently selected for, driving the development of new mental capacities.

As neuroscientists put it, the “computational requirements” of tuning into the signals of newborn little creatures, and of operating as a couple – a sparrow couple, a mountain lion couple, that is – helped drive the enlargement of the brain over millions of years. As we all know, when you are in a relationship with someone – and especially if you are raising a family together – there’s a lot you have to take into account, negotiate, arrange, anticipate, etc. No wonder brains got bigger.

It may be a source of satisfaction to some that monogamous species typically have the largest brains in proportion to bodyweight! Continue reading

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The Wolf of Hate

I heard a story once about a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: “In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.”

This story always gives me a little shiver. It’s both humbling and hopeful. First, the wolf of love is very popular, but who among us does not also harbor a wolf of hate? We can hear its snarling both far away in distant wars and close to home in our own anger and aggression, even toward people we love. Second, the story suggests that we each have the ability—grounded in daily actions—to encourage and strengthen empathy, compassion, and kindness while also restraining and reducing ill will, disdain, and aggression.

In my previous post, I explored some of the basis, in the brain, of romance and love. In this one, let’s consider the dark side of bonding: how attachment to “us” both fuels and has been nurtured by fearful aggression toward “them.” Continue reading

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The Evolution of Love

How did we evolve the most loving brain on the planet?

Humans are the most sociable species on earth – for better and for worse.

On the one hand, we have the greatest capacities for empathy, communication, friendship, romance, complex social structures, and altruism. On the other, we have the greatest capacities for shaming, emotional cruelty, sadism, envy, jealousy, discrimination and other forms of dehumanization, and wholesale slaughter of our fellow humans.

In other words, to paraphrase a Native American teaching, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate live in the heart of every person.

Many factors shape each of these two wolves, including biological evolution, culture, economics, and personal history. Here, I’d like to comment on key elements of the neural substrate of bonding and love; Continue reading

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Taking in the Good

Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.

That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:
• In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one.
• People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money.
• Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones.

In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you had said differently to a co-worker, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn’t get done . . .

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. Continue reading

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5000 Synapses in the Width of a Hair

How much change in the brain makes a difference in the mind?

That’s the issue raised by a very interesting comment regarding my previous blog, “The Brain in a Bucket.”

So I’ve taken the liberty of posting the comment here (hoping that’s OK in blog etiquette; still learning as I go), and then responding. Here it is:

I was pondering your statement that long term meditators show a thickening in certain areas of the brain. As I understand it, the volume of the skull is fixed in adults. This would seem to require that if one part thickens, another part must be reduced. I am curious as to whether anyone has considered what the implications of a loss of volume in these other areas might be. I enjoyed your article, and look forward to more on the topic of neurology and meditation.

While the size of the skull is indeed fixed in adulthood, we can both lose gray matter volume due to the normal effects of aging and gain it through mental training of one kind or another. Continue reading

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