The Human Psyche is has been tweaked over millions of years to assure survival. We have millions of years of these tweaks building on top of each other, pulling on all the gears and levels, that feed back to each other in their delicate micro architectures to fine tune our responses. But! They finetune our responses to the broadest possible array of situations, and aim to get it right each and every time.
And it so happens that these fine tuned responses cannot always keep up when our environment plays tricks with us and changes. When, say an Ice Age hits. When the climate warms. When our predators change, when our food sources disappear. But those responses of ours are already embedded in our psyche. Some are embedded too deep. Say, laid down when were reptiles, burned deep into our lizard brain. We would have to de-evolve, devolve, to remove these now malfunctioning responses. Which is impossible. The adaptations required to devolve compete with adaptations that work with these malfunctions, these misfiring driving pistons. And often unlearning adaptations is too much of a sacrifice vis-a-vis simply modifying them. Thus we have a cycle where successive layers of modified fine tuned psychological responses drive us, of hormones, of epi-genetical heredity, of reason and emotion intermeshed, to prepare us for the world outside the womb. These layers have been stacked on each other, stacked so deep that plumbing the depths of your psyche is at once terrible and frightening, and exhilarating and liberating. Our drives repel and enthrall. We have the sentient, self-aware experience of reacting to our drives, and reacting to that reaction. The infinite complexities of modulating our responses to get it as right as possible, an intangible web of strands connecting what to what? Strands that hum on neurotransmitters and hormones, on brain plasticity and concepts, on trust and behavioural game theory, on the genes that the intermeshing of our parental dice provided us, on the hand we were played that we may fit a niche in the world, unique and distinct.
But it simply could not be that simple. That as a system’s complexity increases, the potential for instability could only increase, a slight imbalance feeding off a slight imbalance feeding off a slight imbalance, the loops of feedback diffusing through their chemical receptors and acceptors, their bases and proteins and hydrogen bonds, to spiral out of control. When circumstance becomes more than you could handle, then responses shift, then extremities are called for, there are no limits and equilibrium falls out of favour.
Thus evolution must tend towards the extreme, keeping the extreme in check. The long term drift of our psyche is unknown, except that as competition and connection are accelerated, it must push harder and harder against the increasing push of others. The stacked layers must of necessity go further, yet retain control. The dance spiraling inwards but holding steady. This is the human psyche. Laid down over millennia of survival. A thing so old and so complex, kept human and in equilibrium by such complex processes that they stagger our own limited consciousness, yet we can feel the waves on the surface and perchance glean some of its working.
We are not individuals. Each one of us is a continuation of the human psyche, a variation of what has been passed down over time, with our own subtle tweaks and flaws. And each one of us adds a little more and a little more complexity to an already highly, almost infinitely, complex machine.
Are you Human?
The earliest humans, the earliest you, evolved 200,000 years ago. But, superficially, our brain has three parts. There’s a lizard brain embedded deep, with the limbic mammalian brain moulded to that primeval lizard brain, and the brilliant human prefrontal cortex moulded to the mammalian brain. The lizard brain of ours encodes our deepest, most basic emotional responses. Fear, panic, desire, reward. These emotions are thought of as being human. Are they? Or are they the lizard brain cutting through the layers of your psyche, manifesting itself. Are your flight or fight responses human? The involuntary reflex response is that of the leopard brain. A mammalian response, again laid down knows how many years ago. Laid over the deeper lizard brain, forced to co-exist. That is not to say that the layers stop evolving. But each succeeding layers does have to mould itself to the previous layer. To make do. This system we’re talking about is a system far from perfection. No designer in his or her right mind would do this. But this is natural selection and genetic drift blind. It is funny that we are products of random variation.
There is only so much tweaking a system can take before a system is so complex that its complexity stops it in its tracks. There is an alternative, that of intelligence. The relative cost-benefit of tacking on yet another adaptation versus the cost-benefit of developing the intellect. The entire function of the intellect being the replacement of all other adaptations. After intellect, and reason, there was no further need for adaptation. Its raw power gifted with the ability to handle anything thrown at it. To make sense and to extract information about the environment and encode it in its neurons. Thus arose the final, game-changing adaptation of intelligence. The conscious, sentient mind. Consciousness, which is tenuous to define, the central concept being the ability to reason. To carry out logic operations. It was a wonderful thing, like freedom. Like going from watching the shadows in the cave to seeing the light for yourself. Going from being driven by inexplicable, instantaneous reflexes to considered, rational responses. The ability to analyze and strip every situation down, such that no matter what your environment threw at you, you evolved a response. No longer did evolution evolve a response. You did. Evolution no longer had a ‘clock’. It no longer waited on generations.
Evolution & Death
Have you ever wondered why we have to die? Sure, every system breaks down. As humans, our chromosomes are telomerase capped. These telomeres shorten each time a cell divides, such that one day they disappear and the cell is at the end of the line. But why would there be a ‘kill-switch’? It could be because the environment changes and any organism must change in response to a changing environment. But if, to change, the next generation must rise, it must mean the current generation must die. Every generation must eventually die, because the moment an organism is born, it begins to fall out of step with the environment. The environment ever changes. And evolution is reactive. The organism is fixed. Yes, there are epigenetic adaptations, but those too are tied to genetics. Thus, death is inevitable for survival, unless the environment does not change. Thus, we have a lifespan. More accurately, a shelf-life.
Now, do we still need to die if we have intellect? When our rate of adaptation is no longer generational? Not fully. We still possess drives of nostalgia and are attracted to the familiar. We still reject change. But if forced to the edge, we can instantaneously adapt leveraging our intellect. Thus, perhaps, there is no need to die? Indeed, dying is a horrible waste. The natural course of evolution must now push towards ever longer life spans, where the brain functions for ever longer, because intellect and the accumulation of knowledge is all that matters. Organisms born anew will be at a disadvantage to those with experience and knowledge.
The Costs of Complexity
Everything has its drawbacks, and the intellect is no exception. Human beings have an exceptionally long gestation period, long once you understand a human baby cannot fend for itself for the first decade of existence. No other species has young vulnerable for such long periods of time. It is during this time that the brain develops, that un-wanted synapses are eliminated, necessary neural networks are formed, emotional responses fine tuned to the experienced environment. The next decade is where the prefrontal cortex forms and when emotional control is established. Fully two decades of growth before some sort of final outline appears for the human brain. This long period of vulnerability imposes a large cost and strain on our psyche; it is not for nothing that the emergence of sentience shied away until very now.
Analyzing the Psyche
How do you break it down? What is a human being? Clearly, a human being is the ultimate survival machine. Humans will survive anywhere, and will adapt to anything. You are a system that is designed to handle anything thrown at it, any sort of environment, to mould yourself to the social, behavioural, environmental, psychological, and geographical cues that surround you. You were given a metaphorical physical outer skin to do this, your muscles, bones, and body. And then imagine a little homunculus sitting inside, and that little homunculus is your nervous system. It has to control this machine it has been given. There are roughly 68 hormones in the human body and 42 major neurotransmitters. Think of each one of these as a variable in an equation. In several coupled equations. Or several feedback loops. Which feed into each other. This is what I meant when I said evolutions drives us to extremes, while keeping extremes in check. Animals will never display the extreme psychopathic behaviours humans display. It’s because they haven’t been forced in complexity, and concomitantly, they don’t have the innate predisposition to instability. Animals were never driven to the point where the cost-benefit of developing intelligence actually outweighed the cost-benefit of simply hardwiring yet another response in. In other words, we were pushed to the limit of hard wired complexity. We had to be, for intelligence to develop. And, with complexity increases the chance of breakdown.
In the people around you, and in yourself, you can see how our complex environment necessitated the development of an incredibly intricate and delicate psyche, and how that projects onto issues, especially issues that run from childhood. From when your brain is still gestating, when your myelin sheaths are forming, your synapses are connecting and snapping, and your brain is grasping the environment you are born into. Born into an environment devoid of love? Develop contradictory feelings of emotional need and misanthropy you will. Born into an environment devoid of security? There goes a deeply seated aversion to risk, and a clinging to the familiar, a resistance to change. Was your natural character repressed? Your brain will carve a path of defenses, an instant sensitivity to any threat to your character, and push back before you know what you’re doing. Did you lack a peer group? Lacked peers who could appreciate you for what you are? Your brain will crave a sense of identity, and latch onto any meme, any group when it finds the slightest hint of identity, filling the hole that has developed with that identity.
You can also make the argument that intellect developed not solely because our “homunculus” grew too complex, but that our social environment grew too complex to hardwire responses in. After all, it only makes sense to hardwire something in if it doesn’t need to be changed. Which means the environment has to stay relatively constant. But society is a constant state of fluidity as ideas, movements, and organizations flow across its fabric, and hardwired responses lacked any sort of subtlety. Perhaps about 200,000 years ago, our human environment began to matter more than the natural environment, the natural environment mastered. Now, each individual had the human sphere to contend with, and survival demanded on navigating it. Successfully. Evolution began selecting for intelligence, and intellect resulted.
The term “hardwired” deserves closer attention. What does that mean? To me, it is the divide between the conscious and the sub-conscious. Anything subconscious is hardwired, it is not subject to the scrutiny of consciousness (and hence logic). The subconscious is not reasoned out. It is like a machine. It receives stimulus and response follows. There are good reasons for this, instantaneous reactions may save your life, intuitive feelings can serve you well, and sometimes situations are too subtle, and require too fast a response for reasoned consideration. But there deeper considerations. Of emotion. Emotion is subconscious. There is no “Why do I feel?”. You take emotions for granted, because they are. Emotions could never be conscious, because you could never use reason to arrive at an emotion. That is why emotions are sub-conscious. Reason renders emotion invalid. There is no way to explain why you like a good sunset. Or why you like your favourite colour. Why you like going to a music show. Or an art show. It arouses emotion. And emotion is what drives you, and motivates you to live. Hence, emotion supersedes reason. Without emotion, there would be no drive to live. This, for me, is the primary function of the subconscious, to serve as the motor of our lives. The other important functions, as discussed, are to encode hardwired responses such that we can access them instantly, without thinking. Responses that serve us well.
The Hubris of Intellect
It is also helpful to note that intellect has often let us astray. One, our intellect is not perfect, and two, because intellect is chained to emotion. To explain the first, I need to explain how there are two diametrically opposite approaches to solving a problem. There will be a number of factors or phenomena you need to account for in your solution. And a number of rules governing the problem. These form your search space, and your solution will be some variation on, some combination of, these factors and rules. One approach is the random, trial and error method to cover as much of the search space as possible. The other approach is to use intellect to break down and analyze the solution and find the optimal solution. Surely this approach sounds better? But, analysis means you can never know what you might be missing. There could always be a variable left out, a rule unaccounted for. A random-istic approach on the other hand, requires no intelligence and covers all bases. And this shortcoming of intellect often combines with the pull and push of emotion in nefarious ways. Eugenics, whose practitioners genuinely believed in, was a product of the intellect. They thought it was ‘scientific’. And, clearly, the emotions of ‘proving’ racial superiority played into it. Eugenics is a great example of how our imperfect intellect and its susceptibility to emotion can lead us astray. Or, how we initially thought forest fires should be controlled, and only later found out we were wrong. Or where day dreaming is thought to be a waste of time when research shows it is essential. Or, did you know Aristotle and Plato thought slavery was natural? Surely if those titans of thought can hold beliefs we judge to be reprehensible, then what mistakes are we making today? Now, to be specific, our intellectual constraints boil down to an inability to process the virtually infinite amount of information out there, such that every decision inevitably is non-ideal because it has not taken all possible information into account. For example, the proponents of any number of socio-political theories who think they understand how society works and so are dogmatic. But no one knows the ‘laws’ of society. We don’t even understand the brain, let alone society. But dogmatic socio-political stances a aplenty. This is the hubris of intellect, it lulls you into thinking, that just because you possess the cast of a rational, thinking creature, you are one.
I should point out there that this is not some sort of argument against science or the use of intellect, lest someone should get the wrong idea. This is simply to provide perspective.
The Battle for Control – Intellect versus Instinct
As we discussed, we aren’t even fully human. We have a lizard brain, the basic mammalian limbic brain and the human prefrontal cortex. And control is shared. At times of high stress and danger, something called the “Reticular Activating System” kicks in and transfers control to more primitive responses. Instinctive reactions, panic attacks, fight or flight responses, all follow from this. Of course this is a stark illustration, but the fact is reason and emotion share control, and struggle. And, emotion supersedes reason. We saw that without emotion, there would be no will to live. Reason only serves to show how emotion can be fulfilled. Emotions & instincts are your blunt instruments, constantly nudging and pushing you into unsubtle behaviours, because they came in at a time when unsubtle behaviour was all that was needed to survive. And when the environment grew more complex, you could not de-evolve and undo those behaviours. Instead your pre-frontal cortex developed, that suppressed, controlled and modulated those urges. But know you always have your primitive behavioural set pushing up against your higher order control, and those urges are not absent, simply suppressed. By way of example, humans are most aggressive between the age of two and two and a half, and that’s when the brain develops to suppress that aggression. This constant need to control, and what results when that control slips, even momentarily, when you say “I was not myself. I don’t know what happened” is what I’m talking about. The tension between deeper primeval responses that are suppressed by the parts of the brain that evolved later.
How Complex can a Human get?
I think this is a great question to ask. A system cannot get infinitely complex. How much further can we stretch the level of sophistication of our physiological systems, of our neuro-chemistry, our self-regulating systems, before they collapse? Is the answer “not much more”? Because the increase in social complexity, and the information deluge, show no sign of ending. Are there fundamental limits on how intelligent humans can get? On how complex a biological system can get before it succumbs to the potential for instability? After all, you only have to look at mental diseases to see the potential for instability. Do you think other organisms face the range of complex mental diseases humans do? I doubt they come anywhere close. A complex system may confer immense survival advantages. But it will extract its pound of flesh.
If what I talk about seems far-fetched and strange, consider the case of human societies. They’re a great analogy. Just like humans must survive in an environment and compete with other humans, societies must survive in an environment and compete with other societies. So why have so many societies and empires collapsed? Can a society become too complex for its own good?
Perhaps there are parts of our psyche that are too complex, or simply mal-adapted. Clearly, our unsubtle emotions and instincts are not perfect, and they make us do things we regret. Can they be undone? Can a complex system be rolled back? I wager not. There are only two ways for a complex system to evolve. One is to get even more complex, to layer another layer on top. But that just might be unsustainable in the long run. A system cannot get infinitely complex. What is the other approach then? It is to start over, with a blank slate. It’s an interesting problem.
The Question of “Fit”
Agrarian society is about 10,000 years old and industrial society is perhaps 200 years old. But we have been formed over a much larger timescale. This raises the question of whether we have hunter-gatherer adaptations that are mal-adapted to our current society. In 200 years, humans have gone from living a life of subsistence agriculture and self-sufficiency to complex, interdependent lives spanning the convoluted, furrowed ecosystems we call cities. It’s interesting to ask if there are deeper, underlying psychological drives. Perhaps these are the drives that form on people, where spiritual gurus, and godmen step into the gap left by modern society. I don’t have a good theory here but here are some examples I’ve come across. See how much architects take into consideration to design the artificial environment of a room that it may match what we are adapted to. Or how our diet of today has been influenced by our primal past. Because of how our environment shifted, we no longer get the Omega-3 we used to and get too much Omega-6. Or what about simpler things. Our eyes are most sensitive to green, yet when we are at work, we don’t see much green. These subtle mismatches arise between our new urban environment and lifestyle of ours and our primordial environment are interesting. Here are some books on the subject.   .
Embedded Structure (Path Dependence)
In our human preferences and adaptations, we store information about the environment. But these preferences remain even if the environment changes. This gives human society inertia, or embedded structure, also called “path dependence”. For example, women have a preference for broad shouldered men, men who look physically able. Which evolutionarily makes sense, Anything that protected you and your children from violence would be strongly selected for. However, today we have outsourced violence to the state. We seldom encounter physical violence. However, a preference for physically strong men, is now “embedded”. Which means, it doesn’t matter if that characteristic evolutionarily helps or not. Humans ascribe evolutionary benefits to that characteristic, and this idea is held in our social consciousness. Which means, the selection for this characteristic has suddenly been severed from its beneficial attributes. Earlier adaptations can put us out of step with a changing environment.