Evolutionary Psycho-Neurophysiology and Positive Psychology: How our evolved brain can impact wellbeing.
I am not a neuropsychologist. However, as a clinical and coaching psychologist, I share a number of insights with clients on the way the evolved brain can impact wellbeing. These can be extremely helpful in normalising the challenges we face in everyday life, understanding how problems with mental health can arise and providing routes to address them. In this blog I highlight the key issues as I see them, noting that neuroscience is really complex, we don’t have the full picture yet and what is presented here is a huge simplification intended to be helpful but “held lightly”. I draw on the work of Paul Gilbert (2014), Ryan and Deci (2000) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
The legacy of evolution
As humans evolved, a number of characteristics became embedded in the way our brain and body worked because these made it more likely that the individual would survive and reproduce. These characteristics were relevant to the context of man in a hunter-gatherer, survival based world. They persist as part of our biological inheritance because change at this level takes a long time to happen so there is a significant lag. Indeed our context in modern society changes so fast I wonder if our biology will ever catch up! The point is that some of the design adaptations of the human brain and body don’t work as well in the 21st century as the environment they were developed to work in. Plus some of our “newer” human abilities such as verbal behaviour and higher level cognitive functioning can interact with the older programming in ways which can have potentially problematic effects. These are the four main issues and I relate the first three particularly to self-determination theory which suggests that our basic psychological needs involve autonomy, competence and relatedness (Ryan & Deci 2000, See my previous blog, January 2019).
Our brain is a “don’t get killed machine” (Harris 2008). Fundamentally we are programmed to put survival ahead of other priorities, which makes sense in an evolutionary context. When we perceive threat the body responds by preparing us to fight, flee or freeze by activating particular nervous system pathways and hormones. The freeze response occurs in extreme circumstances where it is judged neither fighting nor running will work and playing dead is the best option.
However, the brain doesn’t distinguish between social and physical threats, so in modern society threats can be perceived everywhere, all the time and they don’t always have an end point (get eaten or escape). The evolutionary threat response was designed to be a disaster only red button but can become an ongoing alarm that never stops. This has negative implications for the effect on our physiology which manifests in the long term effects of stress related diseases. Also running away is an appropriate response to physical threat but our thoughts and emotions go with us so trying to run away from them (through avoidance) doesn’t really work. There are two key potential issues which are especially pertinent in relation to wellbeing:
- Bad is more important than good (the negativity bias): We notice, attend to and respond to threat signals more than information that things are going well. This is fine if you are being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger but not so helpful if the “threat” is a social one such as your colleague getting a better phone than you. You still experience the increased adrenaline, cortisol and other physiological changes you would need to run for your life, although no physical running is required. Our programming also tends to make us laser focus on the perceived bad thing that has happened and we can then fail to notice good things such as a compliment from our boss. We can try to counteract this issue by keeping challenges in perspective and noticing the good things in our lives.
- Short term is more important than long term: Evolutionarily speaking, if you stand on that poisonous snake today, it doesn’t matter if you drop the bucket you need for fetching water tomorrow. We are programmed to give more weight to short term consequences than long term ones, especially in relation to threat signals. Again, great if you are running away from a black mamba but not so adaptive if you’re drinking a bottle of wine to escape feeling miserable and not considering that you will have a hangover tomorrow and probably feel even more miserable having beaten yourself up for drinking too much. We can address this by learning skills to manage emotions and developing healthy problem solving skills.
This threat oriented bias, in my view, relates to the underlying fundamental psychological need for autonomy and control (Ryan & Deci 2000). We need to feel we have freedom to protect ourselves, therefore it is very easy for anything which undermines our sense of autonomy and control, even if it is not related to physical survival, to feel like a threat triggering our biological responses in an unhelpful way.
An evolutionary need, secondary to avoiding threat, is the drive to get the resources we need to survive such as food, water and shelter. An impact of this is that our brains have become programmed to be very goal driven and oriented to strive for the next target. It’s not enough to get food for today, we also need to think about it again tomorrow. As a result once we achieve a target we adapt very quickly to the changed state which allows us to re-initiate the drive to move onto the next priority.
The basic psychological need of competence relates to this. We need to feel we have good enough skills to get the resources we need to survive, thus anything which undermines our feeling of competence can be perceived as a threat to wellbeing. Again, this programming works well enough in a society where the drivers are around basic necessities. In a world where we are exposed through advertising and social media to endless “wants” which are purported to improve our life but may be unachievable, our driven nature can lead to dissatisfaction rather than life enhancement.
In addition, our evolutionary beneficial ability to rapidly adapt to a changed situation does us no favours in a complex social world. Even if we get something we have been aiming for such as a new car or a promotion, we quickly adapt to this and are on to the next goal. This leads to what is known as the hedonic treadmill where we constantly need to keep running and getting / achieving new things to maintain our level of happiness and satisfaction. We can address this by being mindful of our goals and making sure they are in line with our values (rather than what we think we should be/do/ have). We can also be aware of this tendency, slow down and celebrate our success through savouring rather than discounting our achievements in the rush to the next thing.
At the next level of abstraction, we are programmed for social connection. In evolutionary terms being rejected by the tribe and being alone vastly reduces your chance of survival and reproduction. Thus we have become hardwired to favour emotions, behaviours, cognitions and physiological responses that promote connection. This underlies the basic psychological need of relatedness (Ryan & Deci 2000). We want to be part of the in-group and anything which presents a threat to this triggers our physiological stress responses. This might work quite well if you are trying to integrate into one community and need to understand how to fit in and access resources, protection and a mate. How much more complicated is it when you are part of so many different social groups all with different expectations? The opportunities for social comparison and not aligning with particular group rules in our modern connected world are boundless and consequently so are the opportunities to perceive social pain which is equivalent to physical pain and threat. We can counter this by understanding and connecting to our values, developing a coherent sense of self and learning to manage our engagement with different types of groups in line with this.
Verbal behaviour and cognitive processing
The human ability to think, communicate, co-operate, learn, plan, predict and problem solve has given us a huge advantage in not only surviving but thriving and mastering our environment. This does have some potential downsides which can impact wellbeing. Firstly, we operate on autopilot a lot more than we might think. The amount of data we have to process is huge. We would not be able to be fully aware of it all so many processes operate below the level of consciousness. We need to be aware that these influence our decisions, beliefs and interactions.
Our brain has developed shortcuts which help us handle the information processing load, this coupled with our verbal/ symbolic abilities can lead to bias. Human language implicitly includes meaning making which relates to context and also infers relationships between objects. Both of these factors can cause problems with our mental shorthand. For example sales of Corona beer went down during the CoronaVirus pandemic due (probably) to unconscious linking of Corona equals bad across context. Whilst we need these mental techniques, they can promote thinking errors and biases which can impact how we interact with others and the world in a way that can be detrimental to our own or others wellbeing.
Our underlying assumptions about the world derived from our learning history and these cognitive quirks can lead to sometimes unconscious self descriptions, judgements and rules. These can be helpful in many situations but may cause problems if applied too rigidly. For example “ If I work hard I will be rewarded financially. Financial rewards allow me to support my family. Providing for my family makes me and them happy. My family is not happy (which activates threat, drive and connection responses) so I need to work harder”. So the person works longer hours and does not explore other options about the family unhappiness such as spending little time together. As the family becomes more unhappy it is easier to spend more time away from home to avoid the difficult emotions there and wellbeing deteriorates.
Many of our culturally influenced assumptions such as “I should be happy, if I’m not happy there’s something wrong with me and I should be able to control my thoughts and feelings” combined with our threat response to avoid danger (difficult feelings and lack of control) can predispose us to struggle with our wellbeing.
We can address this by fostering mindfulness to help us be aware of the messages our mind and body are giving us in a non judgemental way. We can also become aware of our personal learning histories, narratives and bias through self reflection which increases the chance we can spot these and not allow them to hijack our decision making in an unhelpful way. Most of all we can acknowledge that being human is difficult and our underlying neuropsychology doesn’t always help us. Consequently we need to treat ourselves with compassion as we try and learn to operate effectively in a world we weren’t really designed for.
All of us have to deal with the issues outlined above and I hope this has been helpful in highlighting what to look out for. The good news is that our brain can learn new ways of responding, even into old age, that can help counteract these patterns and help us move towards a more fulfilling life.
Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. The British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 6–41
Harris, R. (2008). The happiness trap. Robinson
Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
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