We all have a standard human brain and they’re all exactly the same. Any one human brain is capable of doing and behaving in exactly the same way as any other human brain, and this includes the best and the worst of human endeavours.
This was how Prof Paul Gilbert opened a talk on Evolution, Compassion and Happiness this week arranged by Action for Happiness. Starting from an evolutionary angle provided an interesting perspective which makes total sense if you think about it. The higher human brain functions which evolved over the last two million years or so created a step-change increase in intelligence, logic and reason, but the new functionality also brought a unique set of downsides such as self-criticism, fearful imagination and shame. These downsides combine with an inbuilt negativity bias that’s common to all animals (it’s better to be safe than sorry and to assume the worst) to create the negative self-talk and rumination that plagues many of us.
In school we’re taught facts, history, languages and maths. We might be taught about the physiology of the human brain from a Western perspective, but we’re not taught the practicalities of how the brain works, how to get the best out of it and how to be happy. We never learn to drive our own mind!
It turns out that mindfulness and compassion together help us learn to detach from an over-active mind and in so doing to harness the full potential and power of the human brain.
This is powerful stuff, in fact Prof Gilbert went on to explain that true compassion consists of sensitivity to the distress of yourself and others along with a deep commitment to try to relieve or prevent it. So compassion is both an awareness of suffering or distress and an active desire to do something about it. Far from compassion being a ‘soft skill’, true compassion is incredibly courageous. You may have to think about this connection between compassion and courage for a while.
A quirk of the human mind is the ability to generate emotions and physical bodily reactions on demand. If you choose to think about a recent argument you can actually make yourself physically angry; your body will prepare itself to fight! If you think erotic thoughts you can even stimulate your body to be sexually aroused! As far as we know, no other animal has this ability to consciously affect the mind and the body, and it’s this curious feature of the human mind-body system that is developed through mindfulness practice.
We’re actually pretty familiar with the idea of getting ‘psyched up’ for say a meeting or a sports game, but what we’re not so familiar with in the West is the exact opposite response which is our ability to make an active choice to ‘psych down’ the mind and body. Mindfulness trains us to bring the mind to a state of rest and to connect into a state of being rather than doing. Then by adding kindness and compassion practices to mindfulness we can learn to self-generate compassion for ourselves and others.
The final piece of the jigsaw is what’s called eudemonic happiness, which means long-term happiness or human flourishing, and eudemonic happiness is grounded in positive emotion. So mindfulness and compassion practices work together to stimulate the brain’s relaxation response to create a sense of happiness and wellbeing. This calms the body and opens up the brain’s higher functions of intelligence, intellect and creativity.
So from evolutionary psychology we understand that the brain has a stress response and a relaxation response, and that crucially we are able to consciously trigger these responses. Every human brain is more or less the same so we understand that the mind is generated, and it has the capacity to be re-generated or re-wired. We practice mindfulness and compassion to trigger the relaxation response and to create a habit of calming the mind and the body.
Prof. Gilbert took us on a fascinating story from evolution and ancient meditative traditions through to modern physiology, psychology and long-term happiness. He encouraged us to detach from the mind that drives us on autopilot and to learn to take control and drive our own minds, or as he put it “To become mindful of nature’s mind.”