Interpretive Challenges of our NEW MAMMALIAN Brain

Online resources for exploring the practical implications of navigating the modern world with the Stone-Age Instincts we all have inherited. The image at right playfully shows:

  • REPTILIAN BRAIN - Lizard Legacy - our physical instincts

  • OLD MAMMALIAN BRAIN - Furry Li'l Mammal - our social instincts

  • NEW MAMMALIAN BRAIN - Monkey Mind - our interpretive instincts
  • ADVANCED - Higher Porpoise - our executive brain and spiritual instincts


       Monkey Mind  

    Our NEW MAMMALIAN brain (the neocortex) is the seat of enhanced cognitive skills — notably, working memory, planning, scenario-building, and (in humans) language. All mammals have at least some degree of neocortex, but the lineages in which it expanded the most are those that demonstrate the greatest social complexities: primates (monkeys and apes), elephants, and whales (especially dolphins).

    "MONKEY MIND" is a term derived from Buddhism, which perfectly depicts one of the challenges of the human neocortex: our difficulty in turning it off at will. That is, we often sense the Monkey Mind as intruding on our ability to just enjoy life as it is and to be fully present in the moment.

    EVOLUTIONARY FUNCTION: Only two new drives emerged with the neocortex: the drive to comprehend and the drive to predict. Other than this brain component's fascination for puzzle-solving and other forms of mental gymnastics (card playing, Scrabble, chess), the neocortex has no urge to do anything at all. Rather, it spends most of its time in service to the other three brain components, especially the emotionally charged social demands of the Old Mammalian Brain. Fortunately, Monkey Mind can also respond to the bidding of the prefrontal cortex ("Higher Porpoise") to assist in figuring out how to achieve higher values and goals.

    Because Monkey Mind evolved before the prefrontal cortex evolved, the impetus for its emergence was, in effect, to help Furry Li'l Mammal and Lizard Legacy more successfully get what they want — thereby succeeding in the necessary tasks of surviving and reproducing. The neocortex offers behavioral flexibility" to help the more ancient brain functions fulfill their urges in a complicated and changing world.




    DAVID HUME: "Reason is the slave to the passions."

    Hume's Treatise on Human Nature: "Reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will."

  • "A Philosopher in Love", by Robert Zaretsky 2011, on the 300th anniversary of the birth of David Hume.

  • "Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth", New York Times 6/14/11.

    evolutionary insights about our conflation of FACT, STORY, and MEANING

       Human beings are meaning-making animals.

    We cannot not interpret, and strive to make sense, of events that impinge on us. Alas, those who hold traditionally religious worldviews sometimes interpret divine intent, where the secular see only plate tectonics and storms.

    In some cases, such interpretations inappropiately (and harmfully) cast judgment on others. The first two news stories below compile statements by religious leaders on the 2009 Japanese earthquake/tsunami and on the 2004 Indonesian earthquake/tsunami that are (for the most part) dangerously out of sync with what scientists know about natural causes of such disasters. The third article, in contrast, explains the view of scientists.

    The take-home message: Search out the facts, and then be aware of your own tendency to weave narratives big or small from those facts, from which you then derive (or add on) meaning — helpful or harmful, reality-based or fantasy.


  • "Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan Prompt Questions of Faith", Los Angeles Times 3/19/11.

  • "Divining a Reason for Devastation", Washington Post 1/8/05.

  • "Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet", New York Times, 1/11/05.

    strengthening your meaning-making muscles for empowerment

    BELOW LEFT: Watch the first 2:12 mins of this interview with astrophysicist NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, and see how he reframes his childhood lack of access (in New York City) to a starry night sky not as a deprivation, but as a powerful impetus for determining in childhood to become an astrophysicist.

    BELOW RIGHT: In 2002, Connie Barlow wrote her first "evolutionary parable" to commemorate Earth Day. This story, told in four parts, is "Earth Had a Challenging Childhood".

    SEE ALSO TEXT: "Surprised by Happiness: What We Can Learn from Research on Forgiveness and Gratitude" - by Charlotte van Oyen, Huffington Post, 11/25/10.

    SEE ALSO TEXT: "Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges" - by Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times, 2/28/11.


    "Earth Had a Challenging Childhood"

    an Evolutionary Parable by Connie Barlow

    for children and adults

    evolutionary insights about what reason is really for

  • "No doctrine heightens one's consciousness of hidden selfishness more acutely than the new Darwinian paradigm. If you understand the doctrine, buy the doctrine, and apply the doctrine, you will spend your life in deep suspicion of your motives. Congratulations! That is the first step toward correcting the moral biases built into us by natural selection. The second step is to keep this newly leaned cynicism from poisoning your view of everyone else: to pair the harshness toward self with leniency toward other." — ROBERT WRIGHT

  • "The Human Brain as an Evolved Rationalization Machine" (review in Psychology Today of Michael Shermer's 2011 book, The Believing Brain)

    The above video shows the powerful role played by the interpretive
    Monkey Mind in whether sensory experiences bring pleasure or pain.


  • "Science is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves." — RICHARD FEYNMAN

  • "Reason is generally brought to bear only after a moral decision has been reached. Reasoning is 'post hoc justification.'" — FRANS DE WAAL

  • "We have inherited exquisite skills for self-deception. The human brain not only distorts perception and memory; it then uses its extraordinary powers to rationalize or justify the distortion. In essence, our brain regularly tricks us—and then masterfully hides the evidence." — MICHAEL and SHANE DOWD



    Evolution has equipped us to obey our instincts—not to understand and manage them.

    That's why we turn to science and tools for self-reflection and self-scrutiny for assistance. The scientific endeavor takes place within a community for a very good reason: Errors and hidden biases in the work and conclusions of flawed individuals can be overcome, to a large extent (though not entirely), by the checks and balances of peer review, publication of the methods used, and giving peers access to review laboratory logs, data collection, and the specimens themselves. Click the link below for a shocking example of how self-deception (or "confirmation bias") can creep in and undermine the work of even well-intentioned scientists.

    "Stephen Jay Gould, Crusader Against Scientific Bias, Was Guilty of It", Discover Magazine, 6/15/11.

    "How Online Companies Get You to Share More and Spend More", Wired Online, 6/20/11.


       LEFT: A powerful video exploring the global significance of self-deception when an inconvenient truth is at hand. The video is a visual portrayal of the content of a 2011 Op-ed piece by Bill McKibben in The Washington Post, titled "A Link Between Climate Change and Tornados?"

    This is a sobering opportunity to explore the negative consequences of self-deception in the public sphere, while on the alert for how confirmation bias may also be at play in the hands of advocates — even advocates of causes we may support.

    And what about you as viewer?

    Step back and ponder how self-deception, confirmation bias, and post-hoc justification may influence your own thoughts and conclusions as you watch this video.

    SELF-DECEPTION IS NOT ALWAYS BAD. Biological anthropologist HELEN FISHER reports:

    "No particular combination of personality traits leads to sustained romance — with one exception: the ability to sustain your "positive illusions."
        Men and women who continue to maintain that their partner is attractive, funny, kind, and ideal for them in just about every way remain content with each other. I've seen this phenomenon, known as "love blindness", in a friend of mine. I knew him and his wife-to-be while we were all in college, when they both were slim, fit, energetic, and curious: a vibrant couple. Today both are overweight couch potatoes. Yet he still tells me she hasn't changed a bit. Perhaps this form of self-deception is a gift from nature, enabling us to triumph over the rough spots and the changes in our relationships. I'm not suggesting you should overlook an abusive husband or put up with a deadbeat bore. But with the holidays upon us, it's worth celebrating one of nature's best-kept secrets: our human capacity to love and love and love."

    "How to Make Romance Last", by Helen Fisher, in O Magazine, 12/09.

    evolutionary insights about why it is difficult to know and communicate emotions

    Often, we cannot easily 'know' our EMOTIONS, except by way of bodily sensations resulting from hormonal release. It is even more difficult to then try to put those feelings into words — to communicate what we feel to others. More difficult, still, is if communication is attempted when we or they are "triggered" because of the emotional flooding engendered by rapid release of the stress hormone cortisol.

    JONATHAN HAIDT: "We have a complex animal mind that only recently evolved language."

    BELOW LEFT: Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, is one of the pioneers in uncovering how emotions really do drive our thoughts and behavior. More often than we care to consider, our neocortex is used not for rational thought but to rationalize a choice or behavior urged by our deeper, more ancient drives.

    BELOW RIGHT: Michael Gazzaniga, a psychologist, is one of the early leaders in understanding that our the left hemisphere of our neocortex "interprets" our world and our emotions. If you prefer audio, Gazzaniga delivers much of the same content in an audio podcast broadcast on "All in the Mind."

    evolutionary insights into why it is good for your mind to wander

       Commonly experienced as mind-wandering or day-dreaming, the DEFAULT MODE NETWORK kicks in when the brain is not otherwise engaged in a mental task but is still monitoring the body and the world around it. It is thought to be an essential component of creativity. Common experiences of mind-wandering are when engaged in routine physical tasks that require no mental focus (e.g, running, walking, driving a familiar stretch of freeway). Trauma can disrupt the network's operations, and even hinder one's ability to maintain a sense of "self."

    The default mode network was described and named by neuroscientist MARCUS RAICHLE in 2001. (See video, left).

    Because the default mode network often engages with memories of PAST events or testing out scenarios for FUTURE action, it is the opposite of mental practices that strive for PRESENT-moment awareness.


  • JESSICA ANDREWS-HANNA: "The term mind-wandering has been given a bad rap. Mind-wandering can be very adaptive and functional. When we daydream about the past, our brains may be consolidating these memories so that we remember them better later. When we daydream about the future, we may actually become better prepared to confront the event we're daydreaming about."

  • TINA HESMAN SAEY: "Default brain settings may lead to day-dreaming and mind-wandering, but the network also conducts serious business. Among its jobs may be running life simulations, providing a sense of self, and maintaining crucial connections between brain cells." (Science News, 7/18/09)


  • "Meditation: The Dark Side", by Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun 8/7/09

    "Can meditation, contemplation, and related practices encourage people to detach too effectively from their so-called negative thoughts, leading them to actually detach from life itself?"

    See also, 2011, "Enlightenment Therapy" on the dangers of mis-using meditation to escape from emotions.

  • MICHAEL DOWD, in "Evolutionary Spirituality: Coming Home to Reality":
    "The present moment is highly overrated. From an evolutionary perspective, the past and the future are where it's at. Any aardvark, antelope, cat, or cockroach can effortlessly reside in the present moment. Only human beings can engage deeply with the past and consciously co-create the future. By doing so, by looking outward with aims of bettering our world, big or small, we also walk a path that leads to inner fulfillment."

    evolutionary insights into the supernormal stimuli that seduce our neocortex

  • SHANE DOWD: An Evolutionary Understanding of Gaming Addiction AUDIO (34 min)

       Shane Dowd is a 26-year-old physical trainer who is bringing an understanding of evolutionary brain science and evolutionary psychology into his life and into his work of empowering clients. Here he reflects on the gaming addiction that had his grades in high school plummet and that interfered with his social development, but which he finally began to kick halfway through college.
        Today he advises a 3-step process for overcoming game addiction: First, understand how our evolved instincts can so easily be led astray by the "supernormal stimuli" of our modern world. Second, use that understanding to kindle reverence for your instincts and compassion for yourself and for others who suffer from addictions. Third, honor your instincts and yourself by re-structuring your environment to minimize your exposure to supernormal stimuli and maximize health-giving aspects of life.

    2014 VIDEO ON GAMING ADDICTION BOOTCAMP IN CHINA: This seven-minute video, produced by the New York Times is a must-see (now on youtube): "China's Web Junkies".

       "World of Warcraft" Addiction — and websites for breaking free

  • Recovery for World of Warcraft Addicts (Wowaholics)

  • How to Break a World of Warcraft Addiction

  • Gamer Widow

  • 'Game Over' - A Feature on Video Game Addiction VIDEO (8 min)

  • Online Gaming Anonymous (OLGA)

  • Couple Play Computer Games As Children Starve

  • BELOW LEFT: Sample what it is about the new Smart Phone app "Angry Birds" that has "soccer moms" and other women becoming addicted to a seemingly innocuous (solo) video game.

    BELOW RIGHT: "Chore Wars" is a game that impinges on the real world in a very unusual way: husbands and wives compete against one another (or groups of women friends compete against one another) by earning points for actually doing household chores — like cleaning the toilet or sweeping the floor!


       JANE MCGONIGAL: "Gaming Can Make a Better World" (TED Talk, 2010)

    Video-game developer McGonigal asserts that instead of bemoaning the amount of time "wasted" on games, social entrepreneurs should figure out ways to use the allure of gaming to attract gamers into putting their energy into solving "real-world" problems — games that can actually help improve the world.

    FLASH! September 2011, this report: "Foldit Gamers Solve AIDS Puzzle that Baffled Scientists for a Decade".


  • "Online Gambling: A Growing Addiction", 2006 on ABC "Good Morning America"

  • "Your Brain on Gambling", by Jonah Lehrer, Boston Globe 2007

  • Parkinson's Drugs Linked to Gambling Addiction

    Scope of the problem, practical tools, and how to chart a healthy middle path


    Whether a "digital immigrant" (those over the age of 30) or a "digital native" (those who have never experienced the pre-digital world), most of us realize sooner or later that what works best for us is a middle path in managing our connectivity in both personal and professional spheres.

    Whereas digital gaming and internet porn probably should be entered into with extreme caution (if at all) because they are potentially life-altering addictions, it might be best to regard the downside of unmanaged use of digital devices and social networks as connection compulsions.

    LEFT: NEWSWEEK Cover Story: "Is the Web Driving Us Mad? What the New Research Says", by Tony Dokoupil, 2012. "Tweets, texts, emails, posts. New research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed, and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness."

    Other recommended (online!) sources we recommend are:

  • TED Talk video: "Connected, But Alone?" — by Sherry Turkle, 2012

  • "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" — by Stephen Marche (2012, The Atlantic)

  • "iCrazy! Hyping Hyper-Connectivity" — by Darl Kolb (2012, blog)

  • "Silicon Valley Says Step Away From the Device" — by Matt Richtel (2012, New York Times)

  • "Disconnect: A New Movie Sounds the Alarm About Our Hyper-Connected Lives — by Ariana Huffington, March 2013

  • "Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children" — by Jane Brody, NYT, July 2015

    The short essay at LOWER LEFT is perhaps the least frightening place to begin this inquiry into both the positive and negative effects of digital connection in your life (and in the lives of those whom you might mentor). In "Plug in Better", Alexandra Samuel offers sage advice in a 2012 issue of The Atlantic.

    "If many people feel the urge to unplug, it's partly because they're worried about the results of staying plugged in. What Nick Carr terms 'the shallows' encapsulates what many of us experience online: a sense that we're numbing out and dumbing down. But you don't have to unplug from the net in order to find meaning: You can create meaning in the way you use your time online."

         — Alexandra Samuel, 2012, The Atlantic



    "The Guest House"

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
    meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whatever comes.
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from within.

    Jelaluddin Rumi
        translation by Coleman Barks

    NOTE: The final word "within" is a substitution
        for the original "beyond."



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  • REPTILIAN BRAIN - Lizard Legacy - our physical instincts

  • OLD MAMMALIAN BRAIN - Furry Li'l Mammal - our social instincts

  • NEW MAMMALIAN BRAIN - Monkey Mind - our interpretive instincts

  • ADVANCED - Higher Porpoise - our executive brain and spiritual instincts

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