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  • H James

The Survival Instinct: Old Brain vs New Mind

Here is a common scenario: You see a piece of chocolate. You like chocolate, but you know you shouldn't eat too much. After some internal wrestling you eat the chocolate and then spend a few moments justifying to yourself why it was okay to do that. Perhaps you resign yourself to knowing you were going to eat the chocolate all along anyway. This scenario plays out every day in various forms: rather than chocolate maybe it's a cigarette, or third glass of wine; anything that you know you shouldn't do, but wind up doing anyway. It could even extend to a relationship with a person. Anything really that we have an attachment to that we cannot fully understand or control, and that often sabotages our best intentions. Here I want to explore where these attachments come from and why they are so resistant to our rational thinking processes, and then ask: Is there anything we can do to get a handle on them at all?

Three Brains

If you pick up a popular science or psychology book you may come across the idea that we have three brains, each roughly corresponding to an epoch in our evolution: our 'reptilian' brain, our 'mammalian' brain, and our modern brain - or 'neo-cortex'. Each one pulls us in a certain direction. Of course, the brain is not 'layered' in quite this way but it is not such a bad model. For billions of years our reptilian brain evolved, and it still takes care of our most basic functions such as regulating breathing and heart rate, and is appropriately buried deep in our craniums. Then we became mammals and things began to get interesting: our fight-flight-freeze responses, our pleasure-seeking, danger-avoiding, stay-in-the-pack drives began evolving in tandem with our amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus and other exotic zones of the brain. Then we became hominids: we walked on two legs, began using tools and preparing our food, and in the process freed up a ton of calories to evolve our 'new' brains.

Our new, and it should be said social, brains. Consider for a moment the mental processing required to read and recognize faces, to use language, to navigate social situations, empathise, infer, second-guess, imagine what someone else is thinking, or might think of you, what is appropriate in a given situation, and so on. In fact it is not inaccurate to say that when we became social creatures our neocortex metaphorically exploded. Certainly, our increasing range of movement and manual dexterity also contributed, but when it comes to mental processes, they have evolved chiefly in order that we succeed as social creatures. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view; if one is isolated from the tribe or group one's chance of survival - let alone reproducing - shrinks drastically. To be successful socially is to survive and thrive. (Plus studies now abound which show how social isolation can have a significant negative impact on mental and physical health, and not just isolation but any form of exclusion such as bullying or judgment.)

The Survival Instinct

We could simplify this 'three-brain' model to 'two brains' - the 'survival instinct' and the 'new brain', and this is just what Dr Marc Schoen does in his book Your Survival Instinct is Killing You (2013) in which he explores the conflict between our 'survival' and 'new' brains. In this model our survival instinct evolved over billions of years. It is ancient, powerful and enabled us to survive. It communicates using direct neural pathways and hormonal messengers such adrenaline or dopamine. It is quick, and it knows what it wants (e.g. chocolate) and what to avoid (dark spaces and people who argue with themselves at bus stops).

On the other hand the new brain has evolved in a relatively brisk million-odd years. Its headquarters are in the pre-frontal cortex and those areas of the mammalian brain involved in learning, recognition, memory and language. This is where the more complex social reasoning happens, as well as planning, conceptualizing and imagining. It uses language and images. It is that self-talk, internal babble we are all familiar with. (Incidentally the ancient Indians called this vikalpa, or thought-forms.) Our actions and interaction with others, including work, is largely the business of the new brain. The metaphor of a rider and a horse, often used in Buddhist writing, is a good one to describe the new and old brain.

The Evolutionary Prerogative

The survival brain has evolved primarily to look out for threats and to seek out pleasurable things. We survived all those eons because we were good at sensing danger and staying in the pack. We are very good at being afraid, and our fear response can go on for a long time - pumping adrenaline into our system to numb our fatigue or pain, or using cortisol to mobilise energy reserves. On the other hand the pleasure response is woefully short lived. Experiments on rats have shown how dopamine (the 'motivation' chemical) spikes in anticipation of getting something pleasurable, but then drops off a cliff edge as soon as that nice thing is attained. As soon as we have eaten the chocolate, we start wanting more. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view - it is the wanting that drives us to find new (and once scarce) food sources and so forth. What is more, if our fear-stress response keeps going (such as in an ongoing crisis) it actually dampens down the pleasure circuits of the brain so that vital energy is not squandered seeking unnecessary pleasures (the stress hormone cortisol inhibits dopamine production).

In short the 'evolutionary prerogative' can be summed up in the short phrase: "You can never have enough fear and you can never get enough of a good thing." (Or even just "Be scared. Be hungry!")

So, our survival instinct is there to keep us physically unsatisfied and vigilant to any threats, leaving us prone to addictions and anxiety, something the advertising industry knows all too well! If this were not bad enough the 'survival' and 'new' brain don't really talk using the same language. Hormones are notoriously difficult to reason with. The flow of information between them is likened to 'two-way traffic, but heavier in one direction'. The ancient survival instinct almost always trumps the new brain, which is left explaining the empty chocolate wrapper to itself.

However the survival instinct does not really 'win' either; because even though it exerts a powerful influence on our action and moods we rarely pay attention to it. This is mainly for the simple reason we need to get on with our day-to-day lives, and for this we mainly use our new brains - reasoning, calculating, planning, interacting. We no longer live in the savannah in small tribal groups but super-complex, mostly urban, environments, flooded with information. If we do satisfy our 'survival' needs it is usually in a socially conditioned way, and often with a great deal of thinking overlain on top of it.

Yet, our survival instinct is continually being stimulated by our world: the aforementioned adverts, the media, loud noises, bright lights, alarms, not to mention our own imagination, our vikalpa. Our survival instinct is being triggered almost all the time. Sometimes we are aware of this but more often it simmers away just beneath the radar of our conscious awareness. As a result we remain in a state of what Schoen calls agitance; that low-level background noise of modern existence. Agitance, like any unpleasant sensation, is not especially welcome and one of the easiest ways to deal with this discomfort is to distract ourselves...and one of the easiest ways of doing this is by feeding our brains with yet more information - smartphones, TV, social media, newspapers, etc. (Yes, I am aware you may be reading this on a smartphone. Actually I think smartphones are great, it is just they just give us more opportunity for distraction if we are not careful!) Sadly while distracting our 'new brains', this does little to calm the survival instinct which simply gets more stimulated, which results in more agitance, which leads to more distraction, and so forth: a vicious cycle of agitation and distraction.

The New and Survival Brains:

Key Points:

  • Our brain work on two levels: the survival instinct and the new brain

  • The survival instinct has evolved to ensure we survive; it is ever vigilant to threats and is driven by desire

  • Our new brains have evolved in response to our becoming social creatures; it is sophisticated and uses language and concepts

  • There is a 'communications mismatch' between these parts of our brain

  • This results in a great deal of agitation which we often seek to escape with distraction, which usually only increases the agitation

The 'Elimination of Expectation'

I once saw a documentary about the training of a specialist unit in the British army. Among all the arduous physical training one exercise stuck out. This was called 'the elimination of expectation'. It involved the recruits dressing up in warm gear and sitting outside a farmhouse with their feet resting on the wall (and not allowed to talk to each other). This exercise could go on for hours and it had no obvious purpose. For me it looked like a pure Zen activity, and indeed I later found out there is a Zen practice called shikantaza which literally means 'sitting doing nothing'.

I suspect that for most of us such an activity would be pretty tough. There would be physical discomfort plus agitation and boredom. Yet it is activities like this that have the most potential to settle our agitance and 'reset' our survival instinct to a state of restful awareness rather than constant arousal. Of course, it need not involve sitting outside a farmhouse. At home on a cushion for twenty minutes a day would be a suitable challenge, as would not switching on my smartphone as soon as I've woken up, or reading it last thing at night, or resisting the urge to read the free papers on a boring train journey. It is by challenging myself to experience boredom like this that I can reconnect with my survival instinct.

With this in mind, see if you can practice the following exercise a few times a week, indoors or outdoors.

Shikantaza 'Sitting Doing Nothing'

1. Take a seat and allow your body to relax

2. Relax your gaze, it is not necessary to shut your eyes.

3. See if you can take 'a step back' from your thinking

4. Allow thoughts/sensations to come and go

5. Notice when you become involved in these thoughts/sensations and when you do see if you can step back from them

6. Start off with short sessions: 5-10 minutes and gradually see if you can work up to 20 minutes or longer

I find this activity a great way to connect with my body and become familiar with my mental processes. I suspect it also allows me some 'quality time' with my deeper brain and survival instinct. Try it yourself and see if it also works for you.

Until the next time!


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