Evolutionary biologist and clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert of Derbyshire England has
studied the evolution of the human brain for many years. Dr. Gilbert has a particular interest in the role human emotional behavior plays to ensure survival of the species, and as we all now know, the seat of emotion is actually in our brain. To really understand the evolution of human emotion, it is of course necessary to look at the emotional life of our close relatives, the Great apes. Dr. Gilbert has done just that, and he has made some amazing discoveries. First of all, he discovered that the apes actually have a fully developed emotional system which is encoded into their brains…in the same way as the human brain. According to Dr. Gilbert, it is useful, although somewhat simplistic, to think of the brain as housing three separate emotional “systems”. I will briefly go over each system and how it functions: 1. The “Fear and Threat” system: This is the system that gets ignited when there is a danger in the environment and the threatened ape, for example, needs to either fight the threat or flee the threat. This system is commonly referred to as the fight or “Flight” system. In such a situation adrenaline and cortisol flood the nervous system in order to provide energy. 2. The “Drive” System: This is the system that provides the energy and motivation to do the things that need to be done in order to thrive and procreate…for example we think of “Sex drive”, or “food gathering drive”…all of those “doing” things. “Doing” things also provides a sense of accomplishment, which perhaps provides added motivation. 3. Attachment, love, connection,. This is the system that drives the Apes, as well as ourselves as human beings to “fall in love” with one another, want to be with one another, and derive comfort and a feeling of well being in each others presence. The attachment system is of course also necessary for mother/infant bonding. When an attachment feels good we are flooded with oxytocin…the “love” hormone. We feel rested and good.
It is Dr. Gilbert’s assertion that human beings have the same basic emotional systems to contend with as our close evolutionary relatives. We can’t help it. It’s built in. It’s easy to see how the emotions have enormous evolutionary value, for ourselves and our animal relatives, but there is a downside as well. Fortunately, and unfortunately, human beings have also developed consciousness. This means that we not only operate out of instinct, but we contemplate what we do…sometimes endlessly and obsessively. Our interpretation of “threat” for example, becomes the co-worker who looks at us the wrong way..or the driver who cuts us off. In a sense our emotional systems are “overdetermined”. We internalize a memory of someone who has hurt us or made us angry, so that anyone who reminds us of that person causes unnecessary anxiety or anger. Similarly, our “Drive” system can become overactivated when we are constantly focused on achieving more and more, and/or making more and more money. Insidiously, people can sometimes spend a lifetime ping ponging back and forth between. High achievement the drive system and worry about losing what they have (the threat system) Among other things, this can make for a very unhealthy brain and nervous system. The stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol are constantly pumping through your body. This can literally “wear out” the system and contribute to many stress related physical diseases. So what is the answer?
Dr. Gilbert argues that the answer lies in the third emotional system of Attachment, Love, and Connection. What is distinctly different about this system is that it is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system. Both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system are part of the autonomic nervous system which automatically regulates our internal organs and facilitates the firing of neurons for “action”. However, the parasympathetic system is focused on rest and digestion. The parasympathetic system is complementary to the sympathetic system, and a necessary part of replenishing our stores of energy…giving the brain a much needed opportunity to “de-stress” and rest.
So how does this relate to compassion? Dr. Gilbert argues that people who have great compassion for themselves and others are always giving their brains respite from the constant “do, do, do”….and “worry worry, worry,” of modern life. Compassion starts with the love of “self,” he contends. It is a way of “being” rather than the act of “doing”..and it floods us with the “oxytocin” of love. Compassion can begin, simply enough, just with the realization and acceptance of the fact that we have the genetic heritage of a magnificent but problematical brain. It is not our “fault” per say..its just Is. From “self “ compassion comes compassion for others, with the ultimate goal of being surrounded by the love we all deserve and long for.
So now Just remember….not only does love, compassion, and surrounding yourself with friendship feel good…its actually good for your brain