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🎧Evolution Shows You the Way
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Full recovery from mental illness will take understanding how my brain works, learning to experience my thoughts, allowing my emotions, and directing my behaviors toward the pursuit of goals. Psychiatric diagnoses supposedly demarcate where our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors become pathological, meaning abnormal and/or a problem.
But what is a thought? Philosophers have a lot to say about thoughts and thinking, but it’s not practical. If we side with the physicalists and believe that the mind is a series of neurophysiological reactions produced by our brains, then thoughts are representations of the real world as discerned by various parts of the brain as communicated by our neurons. Thoughts represent that which we sense (a person’s finger on our upper lip), feel (humiliation), or plan (leave and not look back or stay and convince ourselves it’s fine, really).
For someone whose thoughts seem to be out of control—typically racing and running contrary to each other and to reality—the mind can be a terrible place. It’s ragged and harrowing. Relentless. Fragments of thoughts spin out, colliding into other thought fragments, making us feel cracked and splintering. Other times, thoughts can be unrelenting—fully-formed worries or obsessions—coming in succession again and again and again. Other times, a particularly strong thought—muscly, bullying—can take hold and not let go.
Along with our vague understanding of thoughts, theorists can’t agree on how emotions occur. Are emotions responses to a situation? Or do our thoughts create our emotions? Or does it all happen at once? Or does our physical state (hungry, tired, dehydrated, etc.—which emotion theorists call affect or mood) create emotions and determine how we respond to a situation?
On the most basic level, an emotion is a sensation or a series of vibrations in the body: a fluttering heart, sweaty hands, a stomachache, weak knees; a pulsing sensation in your head, a weight on your chest, the tightening of your shoulders and neck, a rush of warmth to your face. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes it as “a complex reaction pattern involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a conscious mental reaction…subjectively experienced as strong feeling…typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.”
Emotions aren’t discrete categories. The bodily sensations we attach to one emotion can apply to another. A churning stomach, shakiness, and a rapid heartbeat could indicate anger but also fear.
Emotions occur for different reasons and produce various effects. Some emotions are passive, others active. We’re consciously aware of some while others seem to pass through us without us being able to process them. Some manifest externally (a smile, crying); others are invisible to those around us. We can spend days, weeks, months, or years experiencing some (depression, anxiety), whereas others pass through us almost instantaneously.
A behavior is obviously something we do.
Except it’s not.
Psychology identifies itself as “the science of behavior,” even though psychologists can’t agree on a definition of behavior. Is it physical movement and verbal effect? Is it a mental experience? Is a behavior influenced by our childhoods, society, biology, or all three? Does it have to be observable or can it be internal?
The big question is if a behavior’s context changes the behavior itself. Does the reason behind the action matter? Is running simply the behavior of lifting one’s feet off the ground a certain degree at a certain pace with a certain momentum? Is a person running to catch a thief the same action as a thief running to escape capture?
What about the emotion fueling the behavior? What about the thoughts driving it?
I was completely unaware of one of the most basic precepts in psychological (and Buddhist) literature: the motivational triad. It says that our thoughts fuel our emotions, which then drive our behaviors. We live in a think-feel-act cycle. Once I understood this cycle, I developed an awareness of it. No longer did my emotions seem outside my control; they arose because of whatever I was thinking. My behaviors were no longer a mystery to me.
It wasn’t until I understood why we, as humans, think the way we do, that I was able to really heal. Evolutionarily speaking, our brains are designed to keep us alive by avoiding pain, minimizing effort, and, perhaps, seeking pleasure. I viewed racing thoughts and emotions like anxiety and depression and the behaviors that resulted from them as problematic, which made them intense and scary. I’d been trying to control, delete, and fix my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without understanding why they occurred.
My father and I start having lunch together every Sunday. It’s the highlight of my week. It’s also awkward and uncomfortable, often panic-attack inducing.
It’s understandable. Going out to lunch isn’t part of my routine or something I’m used to. And my father and I are getting to know each other as adults.
We decide to read a book together, and it will change my life: Randolph Nesse’s Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. Nesse is an evolutionary psychiatrist at the University of Michigan who takes an evolutionary psychiatry view of why our thoughts can be so troubling and distressing. We used to believe the brain reacted to the world, but the brain is actually a prediction machine. During our waking hours, it sits inside our skulls, in the dark, trying to keep us alive by regulating our physical bodies, evaluating external sensations and situations, and trying to predict what will happen next by drawing on past experiences. Each prediction causes the physical sensations we call emotions which trigger an action that would best serve our bodies. It’s a thankless job that often results in errors.
This view is fundamental to evolutionary psychiatry and its precursor, evolutionary medicine. Regular medicine is about finding a problem and fixing it; evolutionary medicine is about being curious as to why the health condition might exist in evolutionary terms. Psychiatry seeks to treat what it views as mental disorders; evolutionary psychiatry asks why those “disorders” exist and how, in some cases, they might be evolutionarily beneficial.
Evolutionary psychiatry has its detractors, but it offers a different paradigm for how the brain works. We’re all just trying to survive. The brain is out to maximize the transmission of our genes by keeping us alive—that’s it. It’s not there to make us happy. It’s not there to give us a certain “quality of life.” It’s mercenary. It’s programmed to protect us and conserve energy. We’re designed to fight, flee, and freeze to escape predators and belong to a clan when it benefits us.
In this, our negative and self-defeating thoughts are useful. Thoughts along the lines of this will never work and everything is awful are the brain’s way of warning us of possible danger. That’s its job. No one liked my presentation is the result of the brain looking for what’s wrong. Negativity is our default mode. Unwarranted thoughts like I made a fool of myself at the party and she’s mad at me come from a fear of being expelled from the clan and (evolutionarily speaking) having less access to shelter, protection, and food. Procrastination is our brain’s way of telling us to conserve energy. I don’t feel like it and I don’t want to are ways to get us on the couch watching TV. I’ll never do it is a call to relax. Slothfulness is human.
All this would be fine, except many people—particularly those who don’t suffer from poverty and are potential victims of violence—live comparatively free of threat. Extreme emotions, responses, and thoughts are natural but no longer useful. We see lions even when we’re just answering emails.
According to Nesse, negative emotions and behaviors serve a purpose, too. Emotions like anxiety and depression and psychotic thoughts and destructive behaviors like binge eating aren’t pathological; they date back to primitive humankind and, for some reason, haven’t been eliminated by natural selection.
Anxiety (even edginess) helped primitive humans stay alert and run from lions on the veldt. A panic attack is the result of an all-or-nothing response system; we’re impalas reacting to a noise in the bush, preferring to overreact to a false alarm (a mouse scurrying along) rather than be eaten by a lion.
Depression might be a reasonable—even evolutionarily beneficial—way of responding to stress. The emotion of depression (a slowing, a weight) could be the body’s response to extended periods of the emotion of anxiety (hypervigilance, rushes of adrenaline).
Psychosis could be a defense mechanism, a mode of self-protection, or a way of escaping into an alternate reality when the current one becomes too much.
Binge eating was what we did when we lived on the savannah. If we found a bush of berries, we ate them all because we didn’t know where our next meal would come from.
Evolutionary psychiatry has what I want: a way to have negative thoughts and feel distressing emotions and not see them as signs of a mental disorder—or even a problem. Later, this will help me see why thoughts produce emotions that once seemed mysterious and unwieldy and prevented me from living the kind of life I didn’t know I wanted.
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