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Cultural Balms for the Unruly Mind


The fruits of logical thought are undeniable. Its mathematical and astronomical excursions have taken us to the moon. Its physiological and medical incarnations have cured diseases such as smallpox and given robotic limbs to individuals who had lost theirs. Its philosophical and scientific ruminations have brought us closer to understanding the origins of the universe in the Big Bang and the origins of mankind in the savannas of Africa.

The less linear, more intuitive and fast-paced mode of information processing is the counterpoint to logical thought. It is more “hot.” It encompasses not one, but many competing interests, all vying for control of one’s goals, attitudes, and behaviors. So influential is this subterranean world of heuristics and emotions that even the logical stream falls prey to its bias.

The problem, as discovered by Dr. Henry Jekyll, is reconciliation. Owing to the multitude of programs and sub-programs populating our modular minds, it is often difficult to find correspondences across one’s disparate “selves.” And yet, such moments of correspondence do occur.  Most commonly, whenever we reach for an object, say a cup, we have to coordinate a sea of higher- and lower-level selves, from the intention to have a drink, to the subtle nerve impulses in our motor and premotor cortices responsible for moving our arms, hands, and fingers.

On occasion, correspondence can occur among higher-level selves. When a person falls in love, for example, the experience is often described as one of unification—not just with one’s loved one, but among disparate elements of one’s self. As a personal aside, my own experience of love was marked by an unexpected integration of much of the culture surrounding love, such as the music and movies imbibed by me while I was growing up, with the immediacy of love’s physiology and emotion.

Navigating the tides of the self is not always easy. A lack of integration may lead to dissociation from reality, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and paralyzing inaction. Even moments of psychological integration—say, love or religious ecstasy—may lead to harm. It is possible that, alongside humanity’s conceptual and scientific knowledge, disparate cultures contain ancestral knowledge aimed at allaying one’s mind and its tendencies. Some such cultural balms are direct teachings on the cultivation of mental discipline. In the Buddhist meditational practice of Samatha, for example, the practitioner has to maintain focus on a single aspect of one’s experience, usually one’s breath. In this way, the practitioner allays the chaos of an unruly mind with complete attention on a single point of stability.

The endeavors of music, philosophy, literature, film, and the arts may likewise serve this function of psychological integration and balance. It is now acknowledged that psychological processes are enacted by networks of billions of neurons that achieve chemical and electrical synchrony throughout the brain. Music, like few other experiences, produces widely dispersed synchrony of brain states, from the low-level auditory wholeness of disparate notes to the balance of synchronized emotional responses. The song or poem may thus be a variant of Samatha practice; instead of the breath, the song or poem becomes the center of focus. All other concerns recede into the background or are reconciled by the meaning of the artwork.

For example, an instrumental piece may allay one’s anxious mind after a relationship breakup by uplifting one’s spirits into the realms of nonverbal melody and its emotional distractions. Or, one might soothe one’s romantic woes by playing Elvis’s "Heartbreak Hotel," a song that does not avoid the topic of heartache, but revels in it. In this way, spurned lovers might find solace by acknowledging and redirecting their emotional turmoil towards balance, integration, and resolution.

The Costs of an Examined Life

The speed with which the human brain—especially its outer layer, the neocortex—has grown over the course of evolution is unprecedented in natural history. Over the course of about two million years, our hominin ancestors had overtaken their primate forebears to become the most cognitively sophisticated species on the planet. Initially, the gains were modest. Rough, underdeveloped Oldowan stone tools used for cracking nuts were followed by the elegance and symmetry of Acheulean hand-axes. Eventually, the onset of agriculture brought about a revolution in tools and technology, from horses and chariots to sophisticated architecture and organized community living. The Industrial Revolution, in turn, has given us the space shuttle and gene-editing technology.

This exponential growth in brain size and its attendant cognitive abilities was not without cost. The brain’s hunger for nutrients, for example, is made obvious by the fact that it demands twenty percent of the body’s metabolic energy even though it makes up only five percent of its mass. Such greed requires sacrifice, and the decreased size of our digestive tract relative to its size in our great ape cousins suggests that our stomach and intestinal tissues were the first martyrs. To compensate for this loss, biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues that our ancestors became increasingly dependent on cooking for the metabolic breakdown of foods. As a result, humans cannot survive on raw food alone and require cooking or other means of nutrient breakdown alongside stomachs and intestines.

Another cost of our enlarged heads was the loss of bodily strength. Anyone who has ever arm-wrestled an orangutan or chimpanzee, or especially a silverback gorilla, will tell you how strong our great ape cousins are relative to us. This means that humans had to switch from relying on brute force to using our intelligence in order to subdue reproductive competitors, predators, and prey. On the surface, this was not a terrible bargain, given that humans have now spread themselves to every continent on the planet while bonobos, orangutans, and silverbacks are in danger of extinction. On closer examination, however, this seemingly winning wager emits a faint, Faustian whiff.

Yes, we may be smarter and more artful than chimps, but we may also be more prone to nihilistic bouts of psychological disintegration and existential angst. The reason for this is hinted at by a neuronal tracing study comparing the brain structure of a mouse and a macaque. As befits their shared mammalian heritage, the brains of mice and macaques manifest a similar layout, notwithstanding the size difference. A key difference, however, is the proportionately fewer long-range connections between disparate brain areas in the brain of the macaque relative to the mouse. This is presumably because, as brains increase in size over evolutionary time, connections between separate brain areas do not multiply to the same extent as the brain’s overall volume. What results is a machine that is capable of excelling at innumerable specialties (e.g., face recognition, language understanding and use, romantic jealousy, etc.), but that often fails to coordinate these specialties relative to one another. The authors suggest that the human vulnerability to brain disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease stems from this relative decrease in connectivity in our massively oversized hominin brains.

The extremes of Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia are probably not remediable by mental training alone. Within the normal range of function, however, meditation and other culturally evolved mental exercises might serve to reconcile the cacophony of our over-evolved mental processes. Even if complete integration is not possible, mental training (which probably includes art and philosophy) may help individuals to at least organize their order of mental operations. During Samatha, for example, practitioners are exhorted to maintain “single-point” concentration, usually on their breath, which may function to subdue mental confusion. For example, two irreconcilable mental processes such as sexual desire and parental care may be competing for attention in the space of consciousness. Although evolution has made it so that one process cannot be activated alongside the other, Samatha may help individuals to allow each to run its due course while simultaneously exhorting the mind to always return to its single-point of concentration—a kind of waiting area or base of operations for the mind.

Occasionally, some of us can experience unprecedented levels of mental integration. These “Aha!” moments, what Csíkszentmihályi called states of “flow” and what Maslow referred to as “peak experiences,” are times when we feel like everything makes sense. The world, and its relationship to us, becomes meaningful, and one achieves a sense of integration and of everything being in its rightful place. This is often accompanied by a loss of self-consciousness, sometimes referred to as “nothingness” or “ego-death” by practitioners of Eastern spirituality and users of psychedelic drugs. When individuals ingest psychedelic mushrooms or LSD, for example, their brains exhibit a striking increase in intercommunication across widely dispersed brain areas alongside a decrease in activation within the default mode network, a brain network associated with one’s awareness of one’s self as a distinct self.

It is possible that meditative and psychedelic states are culturally evolved forms of psychological therapy for our generally disconnected and fractured minds. As suggested by Muller and Schumann, humans may have evolved a mutualistic relationship with psychedelic substances that enable us to achieve neuronal integration between previously disconnected brain areas. In turn, psychedelic plants may have come to depend on humans for their breeding and cultivation. That individuals report an opening up of the imagination and an increased sensitivity to art and music during a psychedelic state may be a mark of such psychological integration.

Reduction and Holism

The scientific endeavor depends on reductionism. One cannot understand the functioning and makeup of the world without reducing it to its constitutive elements. But the scientific endeavor does not stop there. As pointed out by E. O. Wilson in Consilience,  reductionism is half the journey; the other half involves understanding how each of the individual elements making up the world at the lowest levels of analysis interacts with one another at increasingly higher levels of analysis. Thus, it is just as necessary to examine our genetic heritage and its molecular dynamics as it is the ways in which this heritage interacts with its environment at increasingly higher levels of analysis—from neurons, networks of neurons, and entire brains, to the interaction of individuals with one another and with their culture at large.

The evolutionary framework is indispensable to this dual endeavor of reduction and holism because its conceptual basis covers both lower-level molecular processes and globe-spanning ecosystems. The foregoing hypothesis about the evolution-imposed costs of human brain physiology being allayed and occasionally counteracted by various culturally evolved practices such as art, music, philosophy, meditation, and consumption of psychedelics is an example of how evolutionary thinking can help to illuminate the complex web of interrelationships between human biology and human culture. No doubt, it is just a beginning.

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