Have you read the previous blog post yet? I suggest you do, for this will make a lot more sense if read these posts in sequence!
If the last post gave you the impression that the business of narrative-making is personal, this one will clear that up a bit. You see, narrative-making that is the root cause of our suffering is not personal. It's biological.
Here, I'm obviously oversimplifying neuro-psychology, for which I apologize.
(If you are a psychologist, neurobiologist, or other well-informed professional with an interest in this area, and if this model requires revision, please share in comments. I'd love to keep refining my understanding.)
Ok, back to the biology of suffering...
The Triune Brain
The triune brain is a model proposed by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s, which suggests that the human brain is composed of three distinct parts, each associated with different evolutionary stages. While other theories of brain evolution have been studied, I find this one to be most useful in understanding myself.
Reptilian Brain: The reptilian brain refers to the oldest and most primitive part of the brain. It emerged with the evolution of reptiles (300 million years ago during the Paleozoic era) and is inherited by all subsequent species, including mammals and primates. It includes the brainstem and the basal ganglia, which are responsible for basic survival functions such as respiration and heart beat), territoriality, aggression, and reproductive behaviors. Here, we begin to see the bridge between the mind and body and presents as somatic responses to emotions (example, heart racing before an interview, diarrhea with anxiety, worry-driven insomnia, etc).
Mammalian Brain: The mammalian brain emerged with the evolution of mammals (200-250 million years ago during the Mesozoic era) and represents a significant leap in complexity. It includes the limbic system (amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus), which is involved in emotional responses, memory, motivation, learning, and the formation of social bonds.
Primate Brain: The primate brain emerged around 60-70 million years ago, as primates diverged from other mammalian lineages, and includes the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with executive functions, decision-making, planning, language, abstract thinking, problem-solving, and conscious awareness. The neocortex allows humans to think, reason, plan, and engage in complex social interactions.
The triune brain concept suggests that these three parts of the brain have evolved successively throughout evolutionary history, with each part building upon and incorporating the functions of the previous parts. However, it's important to note that the triune brain model has been criticized and debated among neuroscientists, as it oversimplifies the complexity of brain structure and function. Nonetheless, it has contributed to our understanding of the evolutionary development of the brain.
Why It Hurts: Biological Becomes Personal
Even a cursory understanding of the influence of early childhood experience can help us understand our fundamental sense of lack.
From a very broad perspective, every childhood is traumatic. No matter how loving your primary caregiver was, they were simply not able to fulfill your fundamental need to be safe. For example, your mother may not have picked you up within a certain period of time when you were hungry or needed a diaper change, simply because she didn't hear you. That was enough to create a felt-sense of lack or abandonment through specific hormonal pathways driven by the reptilian and mammalian brains.
Early childhood refers to the pre-verbal phase when we had no language to understand our feelings (emotional and somatic). We only felt them. And it felt bad. We had no language to pinpoint the source of the bad feeling. It was a bad feeling in us. Naturally, we internalized the feeling to be about ourselves. For example, the sense of abandonment is internalized as, "I'm unlovable" or "I'm unwanted." Again, this internalization is also non-verbal. Whatever we feel about ourselves comes from a primal fear of being unsafe.
Whatever we feel about ourselves comes from a primal fear of being unsafe.
Evolutionarily speaking, all living beings are wired for two biological functions - survival and reproduction. Fear is pre-wired in us because it serves the purpose of seeking safety to ensure survival and reproduction. Without fear, we could be reckless, losing life and limb, and as for as Nature is concerned, become useless for its propagation.
Whatever our internal sense of self (I'm unlovable, unwanted, unworthy, not good enough, etc), it arises from the biologically wired primal fear that serves a very good purpose - it will make us seek safety for the rest of our lives.
However, the very thing that keeps us safe - fear - becomes our self-fulfilling prophecy. The sense of lack colors the choices we make throughout our lives. The choices we make, in turn, reinforce the neural and hormonal pathways that validate the sense of lack. It's a vicious cycle (see above figure).
Importantly, this vicious cycle remains subconscious, held in place by the mammalian brain (not in isolation, of course) through memory and emotions that are concerned with survival.
Survival for the human species is complex business. It requires several neurotransmitters (hormones): dopamine for motivation, serotonin for pride and sense of belonging, oxytocin for attachment and bonding, cortisol to ensure an adequate stress response, endorphin to mask physical pain when you must keep going, and so on. Formation of social structures is critical for survival, and is the root of complexity.
Social structure = relationship, and relationship = conflict arising from the many individuals interacting with each other and seeking relief from the universal sense of lack.
You see, it's not personal. It's biological.
The Role of the Conscious Mind
While the machinery of the subconscious mind controls our choices and behavior, the conscious mind offers the characteristic trait that makes us human - meaning to the nearly-automatic subconscious choices.
Throughout our lives, the subconscious machinery works non-stop to protect us from the underlying primal fear. As our circumstances change, we develop new ways of thinking and articulating (thanks to the primate brain). The ever-changing and evolving ways of thinking serve one purpose - to give newer and better meanings to the subconscious changes that hardly ever change. If you are an electrical engineer, you will learn to give meaning to your experience and choices based on power and electricity. If you are an artist, the meanings you give to your choices will be informed by art. If you are into religion or spirituality, you'll find spiritual meaning to your choices. And so on...
In other words, the subconscious mind with its choices doesn't change much (unless it is made conscious willingly or forcibly), regardless of the level of sophistication of the verbal meaning assigned to the said choices. Merely changing the assigned meaning does nothing to the subconscious mind that is non-verbal and somatic.
The non-verbal subconscious mind has to do with emotions. The verbal conscious mind has to do with logic. And emotions cannot be resolved with logic.
Emotions cannot be resolved with logic.
The Biology of the Projection (Narrative)
Life is relationship. Even if you live or survive alone, you are relating to the world and to yourself. This relationship entails taking in the world through the sense organs (input), making sense of it, and engaging with the world through speech or action (output).
The input through the sense organs is through sound, sight, smell, taste and touch. The world is merely the infinite permutation and combination of the sense objects of color, form, texture, taste, etc. Each sense organ with its receptors takes in the particular sense object and relays the message to the brain where it is registered in its pure form.
However, that's not how we see the world.
The me-story that was formed and reinforced as a response to fear and need for safety is the lens through which the world is interpreted. The pure images, sounds and other senses that are registered in the brain become contaminated by the me-story where we project it on to the world.
We think we are seeing the world as it is, but we are actually seeing the world as we are (see above figure).
We think we are seeing the world as it is, but we are actually seeing the world as we are.
Each of us is projecting a world that is reflective of our own narrative. And because life is relationship, it is replete with conflict between narratives.
In other words, all conflicts of me versus you occur between our individual narratives of right and wrong that are personal (biological, actually!). When a group of individuals have concordant narratives, the conflict becomes us versus them.
No conflict can occur if the world is experienced as is.
No conflict can occur if the world is experienced as is.
What's the point of knowing all this, you ask? Well, understanding the biological basis for suffering lessens the pain of taking things personally. There's nothing especially wrong with us. Similarly, there's nothing especially wrong with anyone else either.
We are all doing our best, even when the best is dreadful. For, dreadful acts come from a dreadful view of the world, which in turn is the result of a dreadful view of the self. And that self hides in the non-verbal realm of pain and fear rooted in the need for safety, a universal evolutionary mechanism engineered by Nature to ensure her survival.