Wired for Adventure
Posted by Joseph Anderson
Is there something that terrifies you? Something deep in your subconscious that grates, taunts you because it’s something you lack. Maybe it’s getting on stage in front of a thousand people. Maybe it’s quitting everything that guarantees safety, and just going. But there’s something isn’t there? Admit it or not there’s always something that possesses us, but the problem is that it’s guarded by fear.
Is there any logic in it? What’s the logic in your next ski session or climbing trip where there’s any risk at all of avalanche, rock fall or whatever? Why sign my daughter up to get up in front of a crowd of people and perform her ballet routine? She spent days bent over with nervous cramps. Is there any physical reason, for anyone to risk disappointment, injury or embarrassment? Today things have gotten pretty safe; survival is the norm not the exception; physical comfort, emotional safety. These are all things we have access to. Why would anyone risk that?
There’s an emptiness we get if we avoid what intrigues us. Could it be that to always choose unchallenged, uninterrupted safety, is actually even more dangerous? I believe the most human thing you can do is to pursue what’s on the other side of your most dangerous dreams.
It’s a common conception that what makes us human is that we’re the smartest in the animal kingdom. But that’s nonsense. We’re not smart simply because we’re human either… Intelligence is the result of a lot of hard work; it’s a gift from the past. It’s not fixed and predetermined to last. But how did we become the animals with the big complex brains that now rule the world? To get the answer to that it makes the most sense to go back in time…way back. Six million years ago when our descendants were essentially the same as today’s chimpanzee something pretty rowdy happened. Some of our chimp ancestors went through an evolutionary change, but others stayed pretty much the same.
At the time we were in forests of east Africa surrounded by savannah and it was getting crowded. Stepping out of the forest was dangerous. The exact reason why some chimps left the forest is unknown, maybe the first to leave were outcasts, or perhaps they were just opportunists seeing dead animals at the edge. Whatever the incentive, there were certain chimps that were not completely inhibited by fear, and thus wandered into the unknown, setting our destiny into motion.
Fear, in all animals originates in an old (limbic) part of the brain called the Amygdala. When we react strictly out of fear, human or monkey, brain activity is isolated to the limbic system shutting off the ability to problem solve (which takes place in the cortex). But if animals are able to regulate their fear response, and tackle a new or novel situation, there is increased activity to the cortex or problem solving part of the brain.
The apes that had greater control over their fears would have possessed heightened access to these problem solving parts of their brains. The survivors of the initial risk-takers, were the ones who had the cognitive foresight to put efforts into new behaviors like standing taller to keep an eye out for trouble. Proudly in control of their fears, they were forging new pathways in the brain, the reward is that they live to walk back into the forest. A couple million years go by, and the ones that did not leave the forest are still chimpanzees - they didn’t have the new hardware because they played it safe. The ones that took the risk were changing. The most obvious shift - an enlarged gluteus maximus.
These little upright ape cousins who had brains roughly the same size of their chimp counterparts are referred to today as the Australopethecus. They could stand and walk over two legs which resulted in spending four times less energy getting around and covering more distance than any other primate. Their closest relatives whom they were increasingly sharing the tall grasses with were baboons. But our cousins were quite different than baboons. Baboons, like chimps, were creatures that depended more on habit than we do. They did not possess the same level of curiosity and inclination towards novelty and change. In fact they have changed relatively little for 8 million years. But our walking cousins would not stop experimenting into the unknown; this frantic predisposition towards innovation and new and challenging experiences, in the face of potential danger, kept stimulating relentless evolutionary adaptation.
Early versions of humans would sprout longer legs, bigger vertebrae, more stable hips and the ability to sweat from their skin. This would allow them to jog long distances so they could hunt more, see more and do more. Again, these adaptations didn’t just happen, they favored the bold, the curious first, the innovative and the adventurous. The ones with greater control over their fears would continue to fire off 4 million years of increased electrical connections in the brain, changing behaviors that would keep pushing physical adaptations, but most important to this story is that they began to grow a noticeably larger cortex than other primates.
The “Handy Man” or Homo Habilis, basically little versions of us with brains slightly bigger than a gorilla, were the first to really start making tools for hunting and manipulating their environment. Still low on the food chain, big cats would hunt Habilis on a regular basis. Climate shifts would stress food and dry up water sources forcing these dudes to keep to keep doing what they do best: wandering into new terrain and adapting to constant change. Of all the ongoing alterations that were required for survival it became a specialty to keep coming up with new ideas. The only other animals that were evolving and changing as fast as our early ancestors were other bi-pedal hominids that sprouted from the same chimp cousins.
Evolution couldn’t keep up in our bodies but became focused on the brain. When it got cold our descendants put on other animal’s fur, made fire, hunting tools. Their natural environment was the changing environment. This was extreme stimulus for brain growth. The largest increase in hominid brain size was somewhere around 1 to 2 million years ago. Why this happened exactly, isn’t known. The most common theory among anthropologists is that early humans became incredibly efficient at hunting and began cooking their food, which released important nutrition. This certainly didn’t hurt, since the human brain requires a lot of energy. But this doesn’t quite answer the question as they figured out how to hunt effectively and cook food before the brain growth occurred.
One theory I find entertaining is that early humans, following herds of large mammals, would eat the beetles, and other insects out of the dung left behind. The dung didn’t only provide protein, it also grew Psilocybin, or hallucinogenic mushrooms. The theory is that the neural transmitting properties of mushrooms caused spikes in brain cell production “promoting dendritic spine growth, and stimulating synapse formation and neuroplasticity.”
Regardless of the provocation, 1.5 million years ago the evolving hominid brain received the ideal incentive for it to double in size. Better nutrition or even mushrooms may have supported, neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin to flush through the pre-historic brain. But somatic connections and growth were being made by physically altering interactions with the environment regardless of outside chemical support.
Effective learning of new behaviors caused neural networks to explode, the brain and skull to enlarge: complex languages to form, tools to become refined and the prefrontal cortex of an already quickly evolving brain to become much more proficiently wired. The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s “mental sketch pad.” It’s where you run through potential scenarios that don’t yet exist. It’s where you qualify; decide what you like, define goals and expectations.
Finally around 300,000 years ago we, homo sapiens, begin showing up in our recognizable present form. Our brains are roughly 3 times larger than todays chimpanzee. Up until recently scientists have believed that the human prefrontal cortex is bigger and better than all the rest in the animal kingdom. But recent research points out that this is false. A gorilla has a comparable sized prefrontal hardware. But why can’t gorillas build skyscrapers, paint Rembrandts and send other Gorillas to the moon? Our “mental sketch pad” is unique primarily because it is impressively interconnected to the rest of the brain and body.
The human cortex is the physical consequence of 6 million years of what scientists are calling “rational integration.” Stepping over the threshold of fear towards a new behavior over and over again experimenting and building an ever-increasing complex relationship with our world. It’s wired for intrigue, challenge, and perhaps most important the drive to figure out what is still unknown. This drive is from mental, physical and emotional interconnected hardware that no other animal has.
Curiously, something interesting happens around 10,000 years ago; the human brain on average, began to reduce in size. Sure, this is around the same time that we started eating less nutritious and more dependable farmed rice, wheat, barley and millet instead of wild vegetables and meat. But the size of our brain was never determined strictly by whether we ate like a horse or like a pig, eating supports not stimulates. The more notable shift 10,000 years ago was a behavioral shift which was as significant as stepping out of the jungle 6 million years ago. Urbanization. Domestication. Changing the game once again meant survival began favoring strength in numbers the repetitive the stationary and the risk averse.
Today there is roughly 24 billion pounds of human brain matter on this planet. Do we really need all that much cerebral effort anymore? The most reasonable thing to do seems to be to just play it safe. There are people out there working to figure out todays biggest challenges. Why should I participate? That’s unnecessary risk. Right?
But there’s the itch. What the hell is that itch I have to do completely unreasonable things like climb the west face of Bhagarithi III? What a dangerous and cold and stupid thing to want to do; Why do I want to go back to school? I’m too old and slow for that. Why do I want my kids to challenge themselves and find what fascinates them? Why do we feel so much better, more alive after a good challenge? You know what I’m talking about. Simple routine, playing it safe, all that is fine if you’re a sheep. But for us it’s dangerous. There’s no way you’d be happy eating 3 identical meals every day, working the same dead end job and never ever doing anything challenging, different or interesting for the rest of your life. This would be so un-stimulating that you would become severely depressed. You’re big brain earned through millions of years of fearless effort would become quiet. It would begin to atrophy and rot.
We are unique because we require a bigger flush of dopamine through a larger and more complex interconnected limbic to prefrontal network than any other species on the planet. Tackling what terrifies and at the same time fascinates is the most human trait any of us posses. Our brain is looking for adventure; It’s the shit we live for. That’s what it’s wired for.
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Michelle Anderson LMHC