What’s wrong with us?

Half Woman – Half Lizard!

So why, when it’s not actually Armageddon and things are not that terrible, can we feel so dissatisfied, ill at ease, agitated or worse?

We mustn’t be too hard on ourselves – we have a hard wired evolutionary bias to focus on ‘what’s wrong’. For our future protection, bad experiences stay with us, the brain structure remembers. Pleasant experiences and positive mind states like optimism, gratitude and equilibrium are just not that useful in evolutionary terms.

The reptilian part of our brain is hard wired for hyper-vigilance and a ‘holy crap’ response. Back in the dinosaurs’ day a relaxed ‘chill baby – it’s all cool’ attitude got you gobbled up pronto and those laid back genes did not get passed down the line in large quantities.

Instead, we got more of the slightly neurotic, on the edge, be careful and ‘start worrying just in case’ genes. This kept the human species going of course, and as our minds are designed to ‘figure things out’ i.e. think, we have created the most marvellous technological advances. However, it can also be argued that we are more neurotic and unhappy than ever before in human history. Even when it’s relatively good. It’s bad.

The Body Chemical

When ‘Something is Wrong’ the amygdala sends an alarm to the hypothalamus and causes a chemical stress reaction, sending cortisol, adrenaline and other nasties hurtling around the body.

These chemicals are doing their job well, they are designed to give us the energy to fight or flee. The body is screaming ‘Run Forest Run’, but in this modern age, we generally don’t need to sprint away from danger. Neither do we tend to settle everything with a good old physical punch up. So, in the absence of a run or a ruck, this energy is not discharged and our sympathetic nervous systems are over stimulated and stuck in a state of hyper arousal. The mind then steps in to try to ‘figure it out’, leaving us feeling dreadful and craving a way to feel better, immediately. No wonder we humans like a drink.

But, sadly, evolution couldn’t give a monkey’s how this mechanism makes us feel. In this instance, it is concerned with survival and survival alone.

The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.
Biologist, theorist, naturalist and author, E. O. Wilson

Evolution and hope

Before you go rushing out for a copy of The Bunny Suicides for inspiration, there is some good news. The human brain is continually evolving and the most recent addition of the frontal cortex gives us the ability amongst other things to rationalise, communicate, socialise and make judgements. It has the potential to not only sooth and calm our reactive reptilian centre, but to be the witness of our own experience, including watching our own thoughts, thereby creating a space between stimulus and reaction. In other words, Mindfulness.

‘The ability to be aware of what is happening in the present moment (via the portal of our own body) and holding what is here, the good, the bad and the butt ugly with shed loads of love and compassion.’

It doesn’t sound much, but this simple act, when practised regularly, is transformative. We are no longer lost in thought and at the mercy of our reactions to what is happening. We can thank the gods, evolution and our frontal lobes for this potential, which offers tangible relief and a way out of the suffering we all experience.