Writing at work
I am thinking about this pain in my left hand that showed up yesterday afternoon instantly, without warning or obvious provocation. I have no idea what’s wrong with it, but I cannot use my thumb at all. The pain travels to the back of my hand around my index finger, and sometimes into the side of my wrist. The fleshy area of my palm feels like there’s a charley horse in the muscle. It feels sprained.
But it makes me think of how we try not to use a painful part of our bodies if we can help it. It’s our natural reaction to pain. What if this is the same thing that happened to my mother, or to others who experience some severe trauma at a critical window of their childhood development. What if the development of the self, including the burgeoning awakening of rule formation and utilization toward the formation of a self-as-agent in childhood? Perhaps there is a particular vulnerability in a critical window period where, according to a person’s trauma threshold, a wound can occur to the self that is too painful to adjust to, and like a wound to any other part of the body – if possible – a person will “favor” the wounded aspect and refuse to use it.
Looking at natural processes, this would seem to me to be a logical possibility. When a self hurts that much, and use of it is limited or ceases completely, then the self, access to it, as well as the process of accessing it and using it, could all atrophy.
When they sew a kitten’s eyes shut and leave them that way during critical developmental windows, when they open the eyes up later after this window is closed, the kitten will never be able to see. Those neurons necessary to create the experience of seeing are no longer available in the brain. Maybe the same thing happens with the self – if we think as the self as an agent of inward seeing the way the eyes and their circuits provide outward seeing.
So when we say that a person is broken, that may be a literal description of the break that can occur between a body and the “self” that is supposed to be using it. Reminds me again of Ramona’s 3-year-old question, “Is my body the boss of my mind or is my mind the boss of my body?” When the mind is wounded and is forced out of the body’s awareness, only the body as boss continues to (automatically and reactively) exist.
I am also grieving for the Neanderthals. We might not call them people because they were a separate species from us. We could not interbreed. We shared no Mitochondrial DNA with them. And yet they shared this planet with us up to 11,550 years ago. That’s not all that far back in the distant past. They had 20% larger brains than ours. Scientists are working hard with the aid of computer technologies to reconstruct what we can of their existence. They may well have had the capacity for speech though they lacked the specific structures that allow us to fine-tune our differentiation of vowel sounds in order for our brains to translate and adjust to the variations in voice box sizes that humans have.
But we know they used tools, made jewelry, used earth tones to color artifacts and art objects, used plants medicinally, buried their dead with ceremony. I grieve for them, and in the process of that grieving comes an appreciation and a gratitude for the survivability due to flexibility that our species had. Scientists have determined from studying the bones of the past that Neanderthal hunters’ bodies were heavily muscled on the spear throwing side of their bodies. They hunted large game in their environment of heavy forests by hiding and ambushing their prey. Yet climatic changes came so quickly that the forests vanished and were replaced with open grasslands faster than the Neanderthal could adapt their hunting methods.
Our ancestral humans came into the same areas better equipped to hunt with agility and speed. Our ancestors had small sharp spears that could be angled through the air to down the game that were out of reach to the Neanderthals. I imagine there was warfare and conflict between our two species, but I am somehow comforted in the thought that we did not necessarily commit “genocide” against our neighbors. We had adaptive abilities that they lacked, including more sophisticated language abilities and corresponding adaptive cognitive abilities.
It is estimated that at most there were around 10,000 – 14,000 Neanderthals at the height of their existence. But all evidence is that by the time they vanished they were smooth skinned and not hairy apelike beings. That they evolved at all, and survived for millions of years, and peopled the northern climates for hundreds of thousands of years while our human ancestors were developing in Africa, gives me pause for thought. Our species has multiplied to include nearly 7 billion people, double the numbers that were on our planet even in 1951 when I was born. Yet perhaps 20,000 years ago scientific genetic research has shown that it was as few as 10 or 12 humans that had migrated up the to the reindeer territories of northern Russia and crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the final years of the last ice age into the north and south American continents. The National Geographic Genome project has traced DNA markers in the blood of the earth’s inhabitants and has concluded that 3 men and probably no more than 7 to 9 women crossed that land bridge and within 800 years had populated both these continents. That’s no shabby feat! To me, humans have abilities to survive and adapt that would almost appear impossible if we hadn’t seen it happen with our own eyes.
No matter what else we might like to applaud ourselves for, we have our bodies to ultimately thank for having developed themselves in interaction with our intentions as a species. Our bodily adaptations, I believe, are with us as certainly today as they were in any point of our past history. In fact, because there are so many intervening factors such as better laws to protect people and better access to medical procedures to prolong life – leaving people to live that would have not made it in the past – there may be many more genetic options available to us than we think. That matters, because as humans we are more genetically like one another than is nearly any other species on earth. Genetic variation allows for the potential to genetically adapt should those adaptive requirements be demanded by environmental circumstances.
Yet there are also certain suggestions that at some point in our human evolutionary history that we made a quantum leap that gave us the competitive edge, certainly over our hominid neighbors worldwide. What that leap exactly involved we don’t know, but scientists will no doubt be able to narrow down the probabilities before too long.
I suspect that it did have something to do with mental flexibility that gave us the adaptive requirements we needed to succeed here on this glorious planet. As some put it, the room dividers came down inside the human brain/mind. Maybe this is when we gained the ability to become self aware and conscious, achieved some sort of enlightenment potential? At that point I suspect that the ability to maintain an individual self identity became an option where it had not been so prior to the leap.
So, it seems to me that for those of us who suffered catastrophic experiences particularly during the brain developmental stages of our infanthood, our bodies may have been forced to create an old brain, where the regions of the brain are cut off from one another in their functioning. Barriers have been erected that deter our brains from being able to experience full flexibility of the modern brain. We are left with a rigid brain that cannot access the individual self-as-agent, cannot experience social connectedness with our conspecifics in a normal fashion.
But we can never go back to using these old brains, either, in this newer world.
The new brain quantum leap no doubt occurred because a certain level of benevolency had been established in their interactions with their environment. As far as I can tell this benevolent reality is reflected in the developmental requirements of our infancy. In order for us to have an optimal modern brain, we must have the resonating optimal requirements from our birth so that this optimal brain can form in response to them. Ontogeny recapitualates phylogeny. Now that we know what optimal conditions form an infant’s optimal brain, we can look back through a time window on how things were for our ancestors way back then that allowed this type of brain to form in the first place. Women were safe and cared for, and their offspring were safe and cared for. In this secure nest-of-the-world the human brain potential could manifest itself.
To the degree that infants are not in absolutely secure positions from birth, their brains will form with adaptive changes and alterations that affect the brain’s operating capacity. It is like a sliding scale with secure attachment optimal conditions creating an optimal, flexible brain on one end, through an entire range all the way to the far other side, where if the infant survives at all, it does so with hampered flexibility and access to self-as-agent. The degrees from one end to the other also correspond to the amount of self-regulation we can experience compared to the lack of same which manifests as instantaneous, automatic, reactive non-flexibility in response to our own self and the world as a whole.
Perhaps if our environment in Africa had been harsher and more hostile, we could get away better today with having a nonflexible brain not run by self-as-agent. Everyone would have the same brain so we would fit right in. But our environment in Africa suited us, and we were allowed the luxury of security which provided the luxury to be able to have a brain that forms that security and benevolency and attachment to caregivers right into it from the start.
Africa was the secure base of our species. Africa was like our best kind of mother, nurturing and responsive and it was within our limits to respond to her with our growth potentials as well. Eventually the human race “hatched” from Africa the same way an infant will hatch off of the lap of it’s mother in order to move off into the wider world of exploration and challenge.
It is also possible that division of labor, both within the individual brain and with increasing language abilities within the human population groups allowed for flexibility of work assignments. Perhaps that larger Neanderthal brain had to recreate repetitive circuits where we could multitask with ours. If you imagine a heating and a cooling system in your house, and imagine there is no flow between rooms when you need it, you would have to install a separate system in each individual room. The old house I visited one time in West Virginia was like that. A separate pot bellied wood stove was in every room of the house. Central heat, or central thinking abilities reduces the amount of physical space in every room devoted to its own individual heating needs.
Humans had the ability of foresight. Humans learned. Humans learned that if they followed footprints of game far enough, they would find food at the other end. Neanderthal’s perhaps did not learn this. Game frequented pathways in the forests and the hunters had to just wait for them to show up. When your game is traveling, you better be able to figure out a way to track it if you want to eat. And figure out a way to catch it on the fly. Neanderthal’s probably could not figure that out. Their brains were not prepared for radical change, for radical transitions in the state of their environment.
A human brain today that has been sensitized by trauma that overwhelms the resources of the separate individual will result in a brain that adopts drastic measures to cope with the trauma, or rather, with the internal stress created in the individual to the degree that the requirements of coping with the trauma are not able to be matched by resources. We have to realize that resources are available according to the ability we have to access them and to use them.
Neanderthal’s did not become extinct because of a lack of game. If there truly had been no game, humans would have starved to death also. Or, humans could have moved on, which was perhaps something the Neanderthal’s were not equipped mentally or physically to do – or perhaps even to conceptualize. We have to be able to conceptualize something if we want to plan for it. A benevolent brain can conceptualize benevolency, but a malevolent brain cannot. It’s not built into its circuitry. It’s like learning a second language – that process will recruit an entirely different region of the brain and different networks and circuitry later on, but will not place itself in the language center of the brain if it is not learned during the early brain growth critical windows. It’s like the kittens with their eyes sewed shut. That is one of the gifts of our advanced brain, the ability to conceptualize so that we can “remember the future.”
The changed brains have interferences in all the kinds – including the ability to remember coherently, to process and resolve/digest traumas, the ability to create a coherent self as reflected in a coherent life story, the ability to conceptualize and remember the future. If the body thinks life will end with the next breath it will cut-off the “chamber of the ship” containing this function. All memories are preserved only as the extend the life of the individual on the body’s terms – not in a social brain’s way….
There are, I believe, critical windows in infant brain development where secure attachment can grow into the regions and circuitry and functioning of a benevolent, flexible, adaptive, self-on-the-scene of a benevolent brain. One of my main concerns right now is that if enough trauma happens later on, that trauma can overwhelm the good brain and change it into a malevolent-environment brain. That, to me, is a tragedy – like losing our Neanderthal neighbors. The issue is the same. The ability or disability of a brain to adapt to an environmental shift. Human brains, if left with situations that the self-as-agent is powerless to deal with, will simply close the whole self (with early traumas) or parts of the self-as-agent functioning (in later onset traumas) off – like closing the chambers in the movies when portions of a ship’s hull has been compromised or breached in order to preserve the rest of the ship. The body will do whatever is possible to save its own life – even if it means that it has to revert back to a brain that perceives only threat of extinction in the very next second of life. Reliance on the self-as-agent is too slow and too full of risk in an emergency situation. Our bodies will take over. But in cases of overwhelming trauma without resources to cope successfully with it, the body takes off on down the trauma road and never gives control or choice back to the self. In some cases, like early developing brain traumas, the self never formed in the first place. Then there is no self to even give the reins back to.
Even after the human quickening or quantum change before we left Africa, there were plenty of times throughout our expansion and further evolution in other regions of the world that we were not in good situations. Warfare, changing climates, demands of environmental stressors – but just as the human brain could operate with its newly found flexible options, it could also return to its older survival mode functioning. If the engine on your car dies, if you still have the chassis, wheels, etc., you can still always push it along. Not a pleasant option, but possible if need be.\
Rubber-neckers going past an accident are just as likely to be thinking, “Damn! I’m glad that isn’t me there,” as they are to think something compassionate about the state of the other. Perhaps we need a national mourning day for all the species that have died on this earth, including our neighbor hominids. Perhaps in that mourning we could begin to appreciate that, including both thoughts, that we are glad that wasn’t us but that’s terrible for them anyway. Holding a split paradox in mind…..sophistications of mentalizing that go by the wayside often when trauma has the main stage.
Is there a relationship between the success of our brain’s evolution and our ability to include nuances of vowel sounds as a species, to be able to detect those in one another’s speech, and hence to expand our cognitions?
They know when deaf children are not talked to in any language that their ability to have a theory of mind will be damaged for the rest of their lives. Not being able to hear a full range of vowel sounds is a form of deafness that must have correlated with the Neanderthal’s limitations in forming theory of mind – and what mattered is that the external world changes could not be represented in their minds, either. They were not able to be manipulated with the same full range of theory of mind skills that a flexible modern human brain is capable of doing.
It would be something if we find that what led to the human’s brain quantum leap was some genetic fluke that let our brains here a wider vowel range. So there were compartamentalized brains that changed to flexible brains without the compartments. Now with trauma damage we can have fragmented brains or brains that just shut off parts of the brain all together.