Chapter two of Buddha’s Brain is aptly titled “The Evolution of Suffering” because it walks the reader through the myriad ways our brains use negativity as a survival tactic. The methods our brains utilize are effective but less necessary now since we as modern humans are more predator than prey, especially when compared to our ancient counterparts.
The main draw of this book so visible in this chapter, is that the authors use the concepts of neuroscience to add a layer of functional reasoning to feelings and internal processes that can otherwise feel uncontrollable and boundless. Namely, that our brains intentionally focus on three specific activities in order to help us survive and stay alive. These are:
- Creating separations: distinguishing between you as the self and the world around you, as well as between mental states.
- Maintaining stability: ensuring your internal systems stay balanced (temperature, metabolism, energy levels, etc.)
- Moving toward that which will help us, and avoiding that which could hurt us.
All of the feelings we experience are meant to assist us with the three items above. The challenge is, as this chapter notes, that our world is constantly in flux, so separations require continuous assessment, stability is difficult to maintain, and survival is dependent on successfully interpreting many inputs.
One item I found particularly interesting in the first half of the chapter was a basic walk-through of the three main developmental layers of the brain and how they function together. The outermost layer, the neomammalian “modern cortex” is slower to respond than the earlier developed reptilian and paleomammalian sections of the brain, but this outer wrapping is responsible for conceptualizing and complex thought. According to the book, though the modern cortex is last to react, it “has great influence over the rest of the brain, and it’s been shaped by evolutionary pressures to develop ever-improving abilities to parent, bond, communicate, cooperate, and love (Dunbar and Shultz 2007).”
Beyond the structure of the brain, this chapter explains why our brains function in such a way that they are generally more inclined toward negativity. Our neurotransmitters that encourage positive activities and connection (dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, norepinephrine) are not equally as present as they are absent. This is because our brain weights negative experiences to make them more powerful than positive experiences, since “it’s’ the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival.” This fact has been reinforced through a variety of studies, including one citation referencing John Gottman, a prolific psychological researcher who has observed couples for decades and determined that “it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).” If our brains equally weighted positive and negative experiences, this positive and negative interaction ratio would be 1:1.
This chapter also explained the phenomena of your brain continuously running “simulations” in order to help you properly see and interact with the world, as well as to review past experiences to allow you to learn and prepare for the future. The simulator, as the book calls it, runs frequently, despite modern human life not often requiring reviewing past events or anticipating future events to actually keep you alive. This is the function of the brain responsible for a particularly awkward conversation popping into your head as you attempt to fall asleep, allowing you to relive it, whether you want to or not. Adding insult to injury, the simulator removes you from the present moment, where true rewards (“contentment and inner peace”) await.
This chapter effectively explains the many reasons we are neurologically wired to easily fall into negative thought patterns, and though the evidence objectively could be somewhat disheartening, it doesn’t feel that way upon reading. It’s obvious that this chapter is laying the groundwork for understanding how our brain works in order that we may implement practices to teach our brains, and ourselves, to function slightly differently through reading the remainder of the book. The chapter also ends on a positive note, emphasizing the efficacy of practicing self-compassion (or simply compassion in general) to strengthen positive neural circuits. Showing love and tenderness toward others and/or yourself, and compassion toward your own experiences, further builds the pathways in your brain that provide positive feelings.
As I mentioned in my chapter one review, this book is somewhat dense due to the sheer amount of information it conveys. But the concepts are linear and presented in such a way that they are easy to grasp, even for the least scientific among us. It does help, I suppose, that due to our inherent humanity we have experienced everything the book describes regarding brain function. We all experience fear, anxiety, hope, excitement, etc. and Buddha’s Brain is doing us the favor of simply explaining why.
If you’re interested in more discussion of Buddha’s Brain, please see these other posts on the subject:
*This post contains affiliate links.