A long time ago a man was nailed to a post and made some profound statements that got me thinking. He said “I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers… If I only had a brain.”
Why do humans have brains?
I’m pleased to report that I do have a brain and can confer with the flowers (although I’m not sure about my ability to scare away crows) and that recently I was talking to a daffodil when I wondered if this was the point of having brains.
The question seemed so obvious that it was odd I’d never thought about it before. Why do humans have brains?
All that stuff is useful.
But it turns out the reason humans have brains is the same reason that hamsters have brains. And the same reason humans have livers and kidneys – to keep us alive.
All that other stuff we do with our brains is just a bonus treat we get to do when we aren’t in immediate danger.
Test it out – go climb into a cage with a lion and try to plan out the menu for tomorrow night’s dinner, or calculate the square root of 736. Can’t do it? All you can think of is ‘how the hell do you get away from the lion?’. If your brain was able to think about anything else you would rapidly become lion food.
Our brains keep us alive by thinking about dangerous things and it’s lucky they do or else we’d be dead (in which case our brains become nothing more than a tasty zombie snack). We contemplate where the dangers are most likely to be lurking, calculate the best strategies to keep us safe and communicate warnings to other people. Which is why we can contemplate, calculate, and communicate at other times too.
This ability to think about potential dangers has kept humans alive for millions of years. But in 2011 there aren’t a whole lot of lions walking down the street trying to eat us, so what is the greatest danger threatening us these days?
It’s true that these things can injure or kill us, but they are also things that we can probably cope with if we have people who care about us – give us shelter and food if we lose our homes, nurse us when we’re sick, and support us when we’re down. The number one danger in our modern era is being alone.
So the number one job of our brain is to be on the lookout for social rejection. It does this by being on guard for all the times we might stuff up in social situations, attempting to guess what other people are thinking about us, and worrying that we’re not good enough.
Wait a minute? Haven’t we been told by people around us that we should cheer up, not worry so much, and not think such depressing thoughts? And told to stop putting ourselves down? Haven’t we learnt from books such as The Secret and The Power of Positive Thinking that if we want to be successful then we have to think successful? But we just figured out that the brain’s job is to think negatively.
Which means whenever our brain does its job and thinks of all the things we’ve done wrong, we’re then going to think that there is something wrong with us and try even harder to not think those thoughts, because if we think those thoughts we’ll be miserable, or a failure. So we just made those thoughts dangerous. And as we learned above, the brain’s job is to think about dangers.
The more we try and fight negative thoughts the more we are going to have them.
So are we doomed to think negative things? Yes.
But does it matter?
Stay tuned for part two...