Shaping Human Evolution
I have a dream. In this dream, human beings have come to better understand how they evolved to behave as they presently do. Something like this charges my fantasies, as it promises to give mankind a more accurate understanding of his current "being in the world" - the way he thinks, feels, imagines, and resolves the various realities he come to experience in his life.
Necessarily, such an enterprise would need a logical timetable. A plausible 'picture' of such a time table is a) "long time", referring to the force of evolutionary biological forces on his present constitution; b) "middle time", referring to the force of historical cultural circumstances on the organization of the brain and mind, and c) "short time", referring to the historical contingencies of development.
Development can in turn be spliced up into: a) Intrauterine circumstances (mother's stress, diet, which in turn is "scaffolded" by her immediate relationships, social background, culture, history, etc); b) Early life experience (0-2 years); c) Childhood (2-11); d) Adolescence (12-18); e) Young Adulthood (19-30).
This developmental picture is enormously ecological, as we can see biological evolution as the "widest circle", with cultural history encompassing the intrauterine circumstances of the mothers pregnancy, and the events of the child's early life.
Now, I will stop to answer an obvious question: from what basis do I argue that man is "acted" upon by the environment? The answer can come in the form of neuropsychology. The amygdala is a deep-brain region that specifically responds to environmental stimuli that is either "good" or "bad" for the organism. It is thus regarded nowadays as a general purpose "relevance" detector, with 'defense' as it's strategic core, and 'instrumentality' (doing things that are advantageous) as a later adaptation. The amygdala becomes activated at .10 milliseconds when shown a mean-face, but consciousness doesn't recognize it until .500 milliseconds. Consciousness is thus 'fed' an image, or perception, that will frame it's form of thought and affective valence. In this way, the vast majority of human behavior is constructed from what Joaquin Fuster calls "action-perception" cycles. Thought, Affect, and Action, become "connected", by the immediate form or "gestalt" of a situation. Through something called a "vitality form" (Daniel Stern 2011), mirror neurons pick up the 'gestalt', organized from the 'bottom' up in motor programs. In the situation, certain 'engrams' will be 'called up' and the individual will find himself enacting a particular cultural, historical, and personal behavior that 'suits' this particular interpersonal interaction.
To go a little further into the etiology of this process, in every human beings life, 'defensive' actions, or stimuli that trigger activity in amygdular neurons, increase in activity and specificity as environmental interactions 'shape' the neurons in this 'primary' nucleic brain center. But what are the parameters in any interaction? What are the primary internalized forces that act upon the organism, causing it to act 'this' or the other way? Michael Tomasellos theory of "shared-intentionality" provides the obvious "setting" that internalized affective process are biased to meet towards. Nervous systems must be wired in such a way that information on other faces, moving body's, and the sound of a voice, may give primary direction to how the organize should 'inform' consciousness. A 'still-face', for example, would trigger neurons in a baby (and later, an adults) brain to stimulate physiological reactions of fear and anxiety; as adults, these feelings are "supervened", as it were, by the instrumental avoidances organized, again by instinct, as the organism learns how to "dissociate" negative affective, psychological, and behavior material, and unconsciously "idealize" positive states, themselves picked up by non-conscious valence-gestalt sensing systems, which can infer and internalize (make available for action systems) behaviors seen in others that result in certain kinds of feedback (positive feedback).
Feedback seems to be what the social brain is organized to care about. Negative emotions, resulting from negative communicative displays (primary = facial/vocal, secondary = meaning content;this does not mean meaning content doesn't amplify the effects in non-verbal communicative displays) generate 'compensatory' activity - this being the locus of what we've historically called "psychoanlysis". Neurology, or the logic of the neuronal systems in our brain, is providing a biological framework for unconscious psychodynamic processes that 'organize meaning' to be biased towards the "positive" in any situation (this process is non-stop, always changing, always adapting, so it becomes increasingly complex as the person ages) and to dissociate, or "inhibit" processes in the amygdala that otherwise generate certain subcortical "anxiety" affects.
A simple way of thinking about human sociality is with reference to what Colwyn Treverthan calls the "Pride-Shame" continuum. Pride and shame would be the two logical poles that would make Tomasellos theory of "shared-intentionality" phenomenologically feasible. People need to be guided to "share positive states" with one another, and to avoid states that were opposite, that is, states where our intentional - or affective - interests were different and incompatible. Between cognitive and affective processes, it is clear that the affective is the more primary, organizing vector, on top of which beliefs later sit. As the self grows, beliefs itself becomes a force upon the affects in the body, leading to stronger feedback loops as time goes forward (i.e as the cortex grows and develops, and myelination continues).
Human beings can use all this knowledge - of our vulnerability to shame experiences (or experiences of negative feedback) and a tendency to fall deeply into a "shame attractor" when a parent uses shame too often in discipline, as well as a tendency towards narcissistic action, when others in our world model for children the behavior of ignoring others, in pursuit of their own interests. Much can theoretically done with this knowledge to help individuals develop the regulatory knowledge as well as the neurological hardware of greater executive consciousness, developed by mindfulness i.e the conscious reflection on the minds own activity. Meta-cognition is not a given - human beings have evolved to be reflexive and automatic. Ones capacity to think clearly, and more objectively, is fundamentally related to the ability to recognize the influence of a past "engram" on present experience, and to have the imaginative resources, and a nuanced sense of bodily affect, to move attentional awareness in another direction.
With all the problems in this world, and with all the things humans do in the face of injustice, it could not be anymore important than to increase the awareness - change the brains, and with that, the minds - of more and more people, so that mindfulness will not be felt as some weird new-age belief, but as a veritable neurological technology - something we can use to increase our attentional awareness of ourselves, of our behaviors, so that we can 'attune' our minds to the way that evolution organized us: to be aware of our tendency to respond negatively to negative communicative displays; to recognize our susceptibility to 'shame' states i.e. from more subtle 'awkward' feelings to full-blown humiliation, and to protect ourselves from such states with 'over-determined', manic defenses; to realize, also, that we are prone to have poor recall of past events, and thus learn to speak with more humility about what we recall about a situation. Most of all, human beings need to be realistic about their fundamental emotionality. The brain is built to adapt - and to adapt, in a creature such as us, is inextricably tied to emotional connections with others, and thus, to emotional feedback, a sense of connectedness, and a sense of belonging.
To make a better world, all we really need to do, from the perspective of neuroscience, is to train the brains of tomorrow to tolerate negative feelings, learn from negative feelings, and grow as a person - and as a mind - in the pursuit of 3 things which will likely dominate human behavior in our species future: cultivating relationships, studying the natural world, and technological innovation.