The Evolution of the Brain and the Mind

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The following is excerpted from Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, by David Perlmutter, FACN, and Alberto Villoldo, PhD,  published by Hay House.

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors faced a neurological opportunity similar to the one we face today, an opportunity that facilitated an evolutionary leap forward. With the awakening of the neocortex, our forebears acquired a new brain structure that nature had wired for joy, creativity, and innovation.

To access that potential, our ancestors required specific nutrients to provide fuel to run their neurocomputer. Once they added brain-enriching foods to their diet, the faculties of certain individuals, the visionaries of their day, came online and began to create great works of art, devise written language, establish civilizations, and lay the foundations for our modern human experience.

During this time, ancestral shamans described Creation as a web of life in which we are all interconnected. This was a kind of Indra’s Net, which the mythology of ancient India describes as a web with an infinite number of intersecting strands and a precious jewel at the intersection of every strand. Each of the infinite number of jewels reflects every other jewel perfectly. Within this mythical net, all beings are interrelated, and all of our actions, no matter how slight, affect everyone else. Within this net, prophets converse with God and interpret His will, while mystics search for the elixir of immortality and alchemists attempt to transform lead into gold. These sages, mystics, and alchemists shared the same preoccupations as seers of today. They asked, as we do now: How can we live long and healthy lives, unaffected by debilitating illness and degenerative brain disease? How can we turn the dense lead of human suffering into the gold of enlightened consciousness?

In the scheme of history, the quest for metaphysical answers about the origin of life died when Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. The popular understanding of the time was that life is a perennial struggle for survival, that humankind is governed by a harsh Law of the Jungle where only the fittest win.

But, fortunately, after centuries of scientists’ dismissal and ignoring of the ancient teachings, people in all walks of life are once again asking the mystic’s questions about the significance and potential of human consciousness. Could evolution have also been favoring the survival of the wisest?

Ways of Fear, Ways of Wisdom

The history of human consciousness is marked by the battle between the older awareness, the ways of fear, and the newer awareness, the ways of love. When the newer awareness prevails, we discover a God of love and compassion, express religious freedom, and practice generosity. When the older awareness dominates, we tend to worship an angry god who scourges his enemies with plagues and who sends his chosen people on so-called “holy wars” to ensure his dominance. With the older brain, greed and intolerance prevail.

Lower awareness views everything, even nature’s beauty and bounty, as a commodity, valued only as a means to generate profit. Water, one of the essential elements of life, is seen not as a home of aquatic organisms and a natural means of transportation but as a liquid to be bottled and sold. Air, another essential element, is seen not as a vital substance indispensable for breath but as vacant space in which to emit industrial waste products. Soil is seen not as a necessity for growing food but as property to be owned, fenced, and contaminated with agricultural chemicals and industrial and domestic waste. Mountains are seen not for their majesty but as places to be stripped of minerals and ores. Forests are seen not as animal habitat and places for spiritual retreat but as potential planks and boards. Even space beyond the sky above is seen not just as an opportunity for galactic exploration but as a place to dump planetary trash and spy on our global neighbors.

Even human beings are viewed as a commodity when our thinking is fettered to the ways of fear. Children in developing nations, for example, are seen as labor pawns in sweatshops or, in developed countries, as future rank-and-file employees. Senior citizens, at least in Western societies, are not revered for their wisdom but warehoused in “old people’s homes” until death finally gets them out of the way. People of ages in between, according to Darwinian protocol, are often trained in warfare or programmed to “get even,” if not “get ahead,” even at the expense of other fellow humans. But perhaps the worst dismissal of human value occurs in the spinmeister term “collateral damage,” which would have us heartlessly gloss over the killing of innocent civilians who happen to be caught in a war zone.

And while the new, higher awareness offers us the ability to think on a sophisticated and grand scale-to see Earth from space and to comprehend that, as the health of the planet goes, so goes our own health and well-being-we find societies, whether developed or emerging, returning again and again to seemingly inevitable violence in order to resolve conflicts and impose values on others.

While arguments wage over global warming-whether it exists or not and, if so, who is to blame, and what is the cause and the cure-and whether or not the world is perched on the edge of ecological disaster, many individuals are beginning to realize that human society is also standing on the brink of an extraordinary leap in consciousness.

In the previous chapter, we carefully looked at the characteristics of the brain’s first three evolutionary stages: that is, the reptilian or R-brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex. Now, to understand this extraordinary leap and to better manifest the opportunity at hand, we need to look more closely at the development of the fourth brain-the prefrontal cortex.

The Prefrontal Cortex: Key to Enlightenment

In humans, the prefrontal cortex, located in the front of the brain, takes on critically important significance as our link to the future, our key to enlightenment, the answer to those ancient questions: How can we live long and healthy lives, unaffected by debilitating illness and degenerative brain disease? How can we turn the dense lead of human awareness into the gold of enlightened consciousness? How can we program the brain for life, health, and joy? How will we evolve?

The prefrontal cortex is associated with the loftier brain functions such as reasoning, inventing the alphabet and music, discovering science, and engaging in creative thinking. Many of the functions of the prefrontal cortex remain a mystery, but we know that it is associated with personal initiative and the ability to project future scenarios, and it is quite likely the place where our individuality and sense of self developed.

When our brain functions synergistically, our prefrontal cortex is fully awakened and we have the ability to develop the very highest form of intelligence and creativity and remain grounded and effective in the world. We understand who we are in relationship to our village and our history. Able to think originally, we recognize what holds us back from achieving a higher level of consciousness and what will help us to attain it. We recognize how we can survive and thrive.

Which Brain Are You Using?

Is your life a struggle for survival? Are you forever trying to make ends meet financially? Are you living hand to mouth? If so, then your reptilian brain is in the driver’s seat of your cognitive apparatus.

Do you learn your lessons through difficult love relationships? Does your prince turn into a frog with a drinking problem after the honeymoon-just like your previous prince did? Are you always ending up with abusive bosses or business partners who never seem to appreciate your contributions? If so, then your emotional mammalian brain is predominantly in charge of your consciousness.

Does your intellect get in the way of your passion and joy? Are you forever analyzing things in your head? Do you fail to listen to your instinct and your intuition? Do you mistrust anything that is not proven scientifically? Are you disconnected from your feelings and insensitive to the feelings of others, even when you try not to be? If so, then you are strapped and bound to the fiendishly logical aspect of the neocortex.

Or are you flighty and ungrounded, with your head up in the clouds? Do you walk into a room and forget what you went there to do? Are you more conversant about quantum physics, the bloodline of Mary Magdalene, and international conspiracy theories than about your children’s homework or what is happening in your neighborhood? If so, then your consciousness is probably in the grip of the prefrontal cortex.

If you are experiencing a predominance of any one of these brains, it is a sign that the parts of your brain are not acting in concert with each other, that those in the background at the moment are allowing another part to dominate and exhibit only its limited traits.

In actuality, to experience brain synergy, it’s necessary to be aware of your financial situation and your relationships; it’s good to think logically and to dream with whimsy; and it’s vital to keep all of these mental activities in balance with each other.

Awakening the New Brain

In the 17th century, James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, published a treatise that identified the date on which God created the world: the evening preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 b.c.e. on the Julian calendar. Although his chronology was based on the patriarchal lineages described in Genesis and inaccurate from a scientific perspective, the Archbishop was not totally wrong. Today, while we dismiss the good Archbishop’s claim as a flight of religious fancy, he did approximate the date on which the gifts of the prefrontal cortex were becoming available for large sections of humanity at the dawn of civilization and the invention of writing.

But this self-awareness didn’t happen overnight; rather, it took countless generations for the prefrontal cortex to become functional enough to warrant a circuitry connection with the older parts of the brain. In fact, fossil evidence of the earliest changes in this part of the brain dates back 2.5 million years ago, during the Pliocene epoch, when an early hominid called Australopithecus africanus lived. The enlarged cranium of A. africanus-a member of the “Great Apes” family, which includes humans)-was more like that of modern humans than his immediate predecessors.

This means that the artists of the Altamira cave and the hunters of the Pleistocene epoch who lived 20,000 years ago had the same brain structures we have today. Yet most members of the species lacked the nutritional support and mind-body disciplines that would allow them to experience artistic creativity and scientific discovery. This is why only a few isolated individuals awakened to the potential of the prefrontal cortex. Indeed, the gifted crafted their great works of art during secretive ceremonies deep inside caves.

With the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, when abundant and brain-rich food supplies became available, the prefrontal cortex began to stir. During the late Neolithic period, starting around 7,000 years ago, our ancestors initiated horticulture, which ended the need to follow and harvest food from a nomadic herd. They domesticated cattle and sowed grain crops and ground the grain into cereal. They developed a curiosity for science, exploration, and perhaps even love. And they conceived of transoceanic travel; for example, Micronesian navigators built sailing canoes in which they navigated the open ocean for hundreds of miles, using only the stars for reference and arriving at islands that were not visible from their point of departure. It was around this time in history that writing and city-states emerged in many geographically disconnected societies around the globe.

At that time, as civilization emerged in the Fertile Crescent in western Asia and the sprawling city of Mohenjo-Daro rose along the Sarasvati River in what is now Pakistan, the dietary staples of the political and religious leaders came from the Himalayan rivers and the Mediterranean Sea. These were fish and mollusks rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a brain food that has become increasingly scarce in the human diet of today. DHA provided the neuronutrient boost that brought the previously installed prefrontal cortex’s software online. Is it not possible that the benefits of a DHA-rich diet explain why a great Master-Jesus of Nazareth-chose simple fishermen as candidates wise enough to be his apostles, his “fishers of men”

However, while the prefrontal software was already installed in all humans of the time, the masses, though capable of tapping into the wisdom of this brain, were still struggling between two mind-sets-the old and the new.

The Old Mind-Set versus the New Mind-Set

To truly understand the conflict inside the human mind, let’s compare the power of the prefrontal cortex, or new, higher brain, with the prowess of the old brain. This comparison is akin to “the ways of fear and ways of wisdom” presented earlier in this chapter. However, there we explored fear and love from the software perspective, that is, emotions that come from our belief systems. Here we are examining fear and love from a hardware perspective, that is, the physical brain that processes those emotions.

The old brain perceives the world as a frightening place, filled with rivals competing for the same scarce resources. To this brain, what matters most is survival, and it is always ready to fight or to flee. Considering that the old brain developed in mammals at a time when large, stomping dinosaurs still roamed, it is no wonder that these survival mechanisms were firmly embedded in the core of those small, fuzzy creatures that we developed from.

The old brain in humans gave rise to the belief that the spirit world is populated with fierce gods who demand sacrifice and that the physical world is prey to invisible forces that are to be appeased. In many mythologies, the earth was populated by titans, giants with extraordinary powers, who had to be defeated. The early Greeks, for example, identified 12 Titans who ruled the earth during the legendary Golden Age. In the King James Bible, God tells Moses of “a land of giants [who] dwelled therein in old time.”1 In Greek mythology, the Titans were a race of older gods whom the Olympians banished to the darkest depths of the underworld in the War of the Titans.

The old brain seeks magical and religious explanations for natural phenomena, be they the formation of mountain ranges or the course of rivers or the tempest of storms. Legends of the Inca tell of the four original beings who could move mountains and establish the course of rivers with their bare hands. Zeus, the king of the sky, wielded a thunderbolt that he periodically used to wreak havoc on the earth.

With such mythic precedent, the old brain righteously claims, “My god is stronger than your god,” and believes that only those of “our faith” have been chosen for salvation, while everyone else is a pagan or a heathen destined for a hellish experience in the afterlife.

The new brain, however, understands that we do not have to live in a continuous state of threat. It knows that we are not struggling to survive in a hostile world haunted by death. It comprehends, rather, that we are all interconnected, that we can practice compassion by “turning the other cheek” and “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves,” and that physical “death” is really an opportunity to return to a heavenly realm-a precept that lies at the core of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

But even this mind-set is a matter of consciousness. At first, only those living in monastic communities and among religious orders attained this insight of the ways of wisdom. Meanwhile, the older mind-set in the majority of the populace continued to be tempted by the ways of fear. This mind-set continued to seek wealth and justify greed, while the newer, higher mind-set called out to the ways of love. These two, seemingly opposite callings have plagued humanity for millennia-and continue to do so. The disparity will only be resolved when we can turn on the truly beneficial neural programs inherent in the prefrontal cortex.

It is clear that our reasoning abilities, rooted in the more evolved brain, are not enough to prevent our suffering or give us the opportunity to create a more habitable, peaceful, and sustainable world. Indeed, if reason had ever prevailed over passion, the story of humanity would not be written in blood.

At this point in history, our species is in need of the next great opportunity offered by our prefrontal cortex, which will allow us to entertain the ancient notion of a web of life in which all creatures, and even inanimate matter, are interconnected as part of a field of information and energy. To experience enlightenment and learn to interact with this cosmic web, we must begin by healing that part of our bodies that allows us to dream a new world into being: our prefrontal cortex.

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