On December 27th, 1831, a now famous ship by the name of the HMS Beagle departed from an English port and set sail on a five-year voyage to survey the southern coasts of South America, Australia, and Africa. Only one year earlier, the ship’s captain Robert FitzRoy had returned the vessel to England after a subsequent four-year surveying journey. During the time of the Beagle’s first voyage, FitzRoy came to believe that if the ship were ever to set sail on such a lengthy trip again, he would need the assistance of a naturalist who understood geology. As you may already know, the man chosen to fill this role on the Beagle’s second journey was a then 22-year-old Charles Darwin.
Throughout the five years Darwin spent aboard the Beagle, quartered in a modest chart room, he feverishly studied animal and plant specimens, compared them to others he found along the way, and recorded his findings in his dimly lit room. It was also during these five years that Darwin would begin conceptualizing his theories of natural selection and evolution. While many scientific theories from this time period have since been debunked by modern science, Darwin’s theories, amazingly enough, are still considered to be foundational pillars in fields such as biology, neuroscience, and psychology.
Evolutionarily speaking, we can safely assume Darwin’s assessment that all animal species, including humans, gradually evolve over a lengthy period of time by adapting to environmental changes, is true. Humans, in particular, have been especially successful at adapting to changes in the environment, thanks in large part to the astonishing evolution of the human brain. It is quite remarkable to think about the modernized societies that we have been able to create from the workings of our minds. Unfortunately, however, throughout the course of our evolutionary journey, a variety of cognitive functions have stayed with us even though our need for them has dissipated.
Today, it is certain that each of our levels of happiness and fulfillment is hindered by these profound evolutionary limitations and we will explore a number of them here. As you will soon learn, there are a variety of brain functions that individually hamper our levels of happiness, and debilitate us even further when working in combination with one another.
The power of the human brain is so great that if we equip ourselves with the appropriate knowledge and understanding of these evolutionary cognitive mechanisms, we can begin taking steps to move our species beyond our most profound psychological limitations.
Our Most Basic Biological Drives:
It is just as easy to see that both nature and nurture have played a guiding role in the process of human evolution, as it is to recognize the psychological limitations that stem from their influence. While the human species wouldn’t be around without our most basic desires for safety, reproduction, and enhanced preservation, there is no denying the fact that these instinctual drives greatly limit the well-being of individuals and societies today. Intellectually speaking, we have evolved in such a way that we now live in cosmopolitan cities, fly in airplanes, and surf the web, yet our most basic predispositions still give rise to unfitting feelings of anxiety, aggression, and greed. To illuminate how our three most basic biological drives have a tendency to present themselves in ways that limit our collective well-being, we can briefly explore each one:
All living species and organisms have a natural desire to do whatever is necessary to keep themselves safe, healthy, and alive. At the most basic human level, this drive expresses itself by alerting us of times when we need to eat, drink water, and sleep. Additionally, the notorious fight-or-flight mechanism of the brain is considered a primary function of this biological instinct. While staying away from dangerous situations is unquestionably the smart thing to do, the need to feel fearful or anxious isn’t as prevalent as it once was. Our caveman ancestors really did need to be on guard with threats of sabertooth tigers and other psychically dominant predators, but in today’s world, the need to skeptically judge and fear our fellow citizens isn’t really there. Moreover, it would be impractical to say that this most basic drive hasn’t played a role in America’s anxiety epidemic which hampers nearly 40 million adults, or 20% of the U.S. population.
When looking at any given species from a purely biological perspective, it is believed that there is one primary goal that takes precedence over all others. The reason we, and all of our animal friends, have such an inborn craving for safety is that our most primordial desire is to pass our genes to another generation.
Enhanced Preservation (Greed):
Just as the drives for safety and sexual reproduction, both have evolutionary benefits and life-limiting negatives, so does the drive for enhanced preservation. Biologically speaking, it is because we most deeply desire safety and sex that we also want to enhance our own, and our children’s, life circumstances. While the only resources that we truly need to thrive are food, water, sunlight, minerals, vitamins, and shelter, our own intellectual evolution has caused us to crave much more. It is because of this drive for enhanced preservation that jealousy, envy, greed, and unhealthy levels of competition exist in our societies today. Furthermore, it is in part due to this desire that three out of four doctor visits are stress-related and that 60% of all human illnesses and diseases are caused by stress.
It should be pointed out that our three most basic drives will forever remain vital for the survival, and continuing evolution, of our species, but when they express themselves in combination with other brain functions, they often lead to undetected cognitions and feelings of judgment, prejudice, jealousy, anger, anxiety, and fear.
The Brain’s Natural Bias Towards Negativity:
At the mental level, what results from these three most basic biological desires, especially the drives for safety and enhanced preservation, is a natural cognitive leaning towards focusing on the negative aspects of our lives and the problems we encounter. In the world of psychology, negativity bias is the term used to describe this greatly limiting mental characteristic which biologically helps us stay out of harm’s way and makes us focus on solving problems so that we can enhance our life circumstances. Yet still, it is due to this psychological limitation that we hold unavailing judgments and resentments towards others, have difficulty celebrating the good things in our lives, and remain incapable of finding the happiness and fulfillment we seek at a more intellectual level.
While being safe and successful are certainly good aims in life, we must begin to recognize how this natural cognitive function greatly hinders our ability to live with joy and satisfaction. For many individuals, who remain unaware of their own negativity bias, a life filled with frustration, anxiety, and unsatisfactory feelings is what is in store. Unfortunately, it is due to this problematic cognitive function that two out of every three Americans consider themselves to be unsatisfied with life. With this being said, the question must be asked:
Is living a life at the mercy of our brain’s natural bias towards negativity really what we want or is it a life of acceptance, gratitude, and happiness that we are after?
An Unceasing Flow of Automatic Thoughts:
Before we move on to examining our greatest psychological limitations, we need to explore an important cognitive function that was theorized by one of history’s most celebrated psychiatrists. It was in the 1960s when a man by name of Aaron T. Beck was treating individuals suffering from depression with psychoanalysis techniques, popularized by Sigmund Freud, and decided to carry out a number of experiments in hopes of validating the legitimacy of his work. What Beck discovered, however, was that the effectiveness of psychoanalysis was not validated, but rather dismissed, as he determined that the treatment strategies had little positive effect on his patients.
Soon after coming to this realization, Beck began studying the inner workings of his patients’ minds and started to develop the therapeutic treatment techniques that form the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). One of Beck’s most important discoveries was that there is a ceaseless flow of automatic thoughts taking place in human brains that instantaneously transforms based upon environmental stimuli and previous life experiences. Today, this notion of there being automatic thoughts continuously popping up inside of our heads is widely considered valid, and just by becoming aware of this more advanced evolutionary brain function, you will begin to notice the unceasing flow of cognitions.
Our Most Inhibiting Psychological Limitations:
As you have probably begun to realize, our greatest psychological limitations come from a combination of the things we have so far discussed. It is certain that when our most basic biological drives for safety, sex, and greed express themselves negatively and continuously at the cognitive level, we remain incapable of reaching our highest potential and unable to find the levels of life satisfaction we crave at the core of our beings. Additionally, when we add a variety of problematic mental habits of mind and have our thought processes contaminated with culturally imposed beliefs about safety, sex, and greed, our imprisonment to our most profound psychological limitations becomes a lifelong sentence.
In the modern times of today, where unimaginable intellectual achievements such as skyscrapers, planes, and electricity are now afterthoughts, we have to wonder if our evolutionary journey requires us to remain entrapped by our greatest psychological limitations or if there is a way to move our species beyond. We have to ponder the notion that there has been a debilitating evolutionary imbalance between our intellect, which has caused global warming, countless wars, feelings of universal dissatisfaction, and our moral values. Most importantly of all, we must determine if our aim in life should be to act as a preprogrammed species concerned only with satisfying our most primitive biological drives or if it should be something much greater. We must come to realize what His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama tells us:
The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”
Consciously Driven Evolution:
It was in 1994 at the University of Arizona’s Towards a Science of Consciousness conference when an Australian philosopher named David Chalmers gave a speech that changed the landscape of neuroscience and psychology forever. His main message was that scientifically speaking there is a ‘Hard Problem‘ with being able to explain consciousness, or one’s ability to experience life subjectively while being aware of themselves and the world around them. In his 1997 book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Chalmers writes of consciousness:
The subject matter is perhaps best characterized as ‘the subjective quality of experience.’ When we perceive, think, and act, there is a whir of causation and information processing, but this processing does not usually go on in the dark. There is also an internal aspect; there is something it feels like to be a cognitive agent. This internal aspect is conscious experience.”
Today, the fundamental evolutionary purpose of consciousness remains as elusive as it did in 94, and scientific thinkers often dance around the subject because there is no quantifiable data that explains what consciousness is or why we have been equipped with it. There have been a wide variety of theories that aim to explain consciousness, and many of the best minds in the fields of neuroscience and psychology believe it to be some type of cognitive mechanism that allows us to watch, evaluate, and correct ourselves when we stray from our most biological drives.
While leaders in these fields propose innovative ways for us to improve our memory, creativity, and learning abilities, they, unfortunately, offer no suggestions for how one can improve their life by raising the levels of consciousness. Spiritual gurus from the ancient land of India, however, long ago realized that by raising one’s levels of consciousness in meditation, individuals could move beyond their greatest psychological limitations. The Buddha himself, who was a distinguished psychologist in his own right, offered profoundly advanced insights into the workings of the mind, from a completely agnostic point of view, and explained how each of us has the ability to become consciously aware of our thoughts and behaviors in a way that allows us to make beneficial changes for the whole of humanity.
By watching the news or researching statistics from a wide range of fields, it is clear to see that unless our evolutionary courses change directions, we will be dealt a devastating set of cards. Not only does it seem as though we are on the brink of a nuclear war, but more individuals today suffer from mental health disorders than ever before, and the effects of global warming still haven’t fully materialized.
From a scientific perspective, it is clear to see that much more attention needs to be paid to researching the life-affirming effects that people and communities receive when individuals move to a more conscious way of living, regardless of if we are able to actually determine what consciousness is. If the whole of humanity fully committed to raising the levels of consciousness in the world, through meditative practices, our most primitive biological drives for safety, sex, and greed would transform into the aims of world peace and happiness for all.
It is only by becoming consciously aware of our greatest psychological limitations and working to overcome them that we can ensure our evolutionary path doesn’t end in unfathomable destruction. It is certain that only by consciously dictating our evolutionary direction as individuals will we have the ability to collectively change the world.