Evolutionary Approaches Websites
We now know that genes can be turned on and off and hence express their instructions through us as a result of our environmental experiences. This area of studies is called epigenetics; the way modifications occur to DNA expression is extraordinary. Using an example, I have used before, if I had been kidnapped as a three-day-old baby into a violent drug gang my genetic scripting of my phenotypes will be quite different to what I am today. I would have the brain for a person who was inclined to violence and very threat and self-focused. Not only this but epigenetic changes can be passed from generation to generation. As this information lands more and more in our consciousness the implications are absolutely clear. We must pay more attention to the environments in which all children are growing and we are all living. It is one more nail in the coffin of this idea that we have individual souls and there are good or bad people. Rather we understand that there are biological patterns that give rise to harmful or helpful behaviour
Brain, Mind, body and the environment
It is sometimes said that we only use a small percentage of our minds. That is true in a way because for example a thousand years ago no human as far as we know could get their minds around quantum mechanics. They had the same basic infrastructures but nowhere near the same neuronal development that neuroplasticity (connections grow and develop according to how the brain is stimulated) makes possible. Before the invention of musical instruments, no human had developed areas of the brain for fine motor activity and musical ability; nor could they have sat down and composed or played Rachmaninov concerto. The reality of neurogenesis (we are actually creating new brain cells all the time) and neuroplasticity (our brains are constantly wiring and rewiring themselves according to how they are being stimulated) has been a stunning development over the last 20 years. Laura Boyd gives a wonderful introductory talk
Not only does she point out the different ways in which the brain changes itself through experience but also that because of genetic variation different practices suit different people. Therefore when we develop practices to change our brains we should pay attention to our personal phenotypes. More of this later
Part of this advance of understanding in regard to our interdependency and the way in which our environments, particularly our social relationships, pattern the way our brains work as major implications for psychotherapy and education are well articulated by Dan Siegel out of Los Angeles. Dan set up the MindSight Institute which is dedicated to using scientific understandings of the illuminating the connections between social relationships and neurobiological states. He calls his approach Interpersonal Neurobiology to highlight the ways in which the physiological architectures of our brain are influenced by the relationships all around us. He has many wonderful books and talks you can explore
His most recent book is on the nature of mind itself and outlines how our minds are dynamic, reciprocal information sharing and processing systems. In a sense, we are all part of the field of consciousness that is co-regulating each other’s minds and bodies right down to our epigenetic core via the reactions and interactions we have with each other.
This is discussed in his new book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, 2016) (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology).
Another major researcher and writer who has written extensively on the way in which our brains are choreographed and patterned through experience and the implications for psychotherapy is Alan Shore who also happens to be from Los Angeles.
Alan pioneered conceptualising and integrating neurological insights into emotion processing in regard to psychopathology and psychotherapy work; with a particular interest in right and left brain interactions. In addition, he has pioneered work in helping us understand how the newly created industrial chemicals are having potentially major, harmful impacts on our brains and genome.
There are now some wonderful writings on the linkage between environments and biology. For example, a truly outstanding book that has just appeared is by Robert Sapolsky’s (2017), Behave: The Biology of Humans As at Our Best and Worst. Vintage. It clarifies very clearly how environments interacting with physiological systems produce helpful or harmful behaviour. You can see one of his talks:
Another outstanding book which is a little older is by the Philip Zimbardo, well-known for his Stanford experiments in the 1960s. His book The Lucifer Effect How Good People Turn Evil 2006: Rider.
It is a book also of hope in the sense that a lot of cruel behaviour is socially contextualised. Important too is his more recent work on how compassion can stand against the Lucifer effect.
For all of these major advances we are still catching up with the implications of how we should begin to think about the human mind as - and indeed as many of these exceptional researchers say we are basically energy and information flows and that co-regulate each other around the scaffold of genetic evolved potential.
Cultivating our minds
Understanding the Mind Movements of Psychotherapy
Part of our despair but also our potential liberation comes from the fact that we are actually fundamentally different from other animals because we have a new type of mind and consciousness that allows for ‘knowing awareness’ and ‘insight’. We can think, reason, plan with a sense of self, sense of purpose, sense of meaning. And we have a deeply questioning mind; we want to know. What the hell is this process called life? We have a consciousness of consciousness; we are conscious that we are conscious These are game changers in terms of life on earth. The problem is not we are not really aware of the implications for this and certainly very rarely use it. Rather we are often passive experiencers, on a kind of automatic pilot of feeling and acting according to what is stimulated in us. Some of the most profound developments in recent years has been how we use our consciousness, our ability to observe and get to know our own minds in ways that can be helpful to us rather than harmful.
The psychotherapies: Psychotherapies are not only to help us with psychological difficulties but to help us understand our minds better, to have insight into how they work and why we feel and do what we do. Desires to help people with mental stress and ways of doing so are thousands of years old, clearly articulated in the contemplative traditions for example. In the immediate post-Darwinian period a range of psychodynamic therapies were developed based on the idea that many of the processes that shape and control are evolutionary in nature and are often unconscious to us. Indeed, Freud regarded himself as working out Darwin’s ideas for the mind. It was the unconscious that directed many of our drives. Jung argued archetypes rather than drives as we have seen. Another evolutionary theory was John Bowlby’s in the 60s and 70s who argued that it was not so much innate drives but attachment dynamics -and the need for styles of close relating that underpin mental health problems.
Another therapy development in the last 20 years linked to psychodynamic therapy but differs from it, has been mentalisation. This is teaching people how to pay attention and make sense of what goes on in the mind, to develop a kind of self-empathy but especially important is the ability to understand the minds of others. Many people with mental health problems struggle with empathy mentalisation
The Greek philosophies argued that reason should always be their basis for the regulation of emotion and desire. A simple but very insightful piece can be found here
Cognitive behaviour therapies, that have proliferated expansively in the last 20 years, adopted this basic approach and gave up concern with unconscious processing in favour of helping people learn how to pay attention to what arises in the mind and then to choose and think differently. Basically to come off automatic pilot and to start acting in ways that are helpful to oneself according to one’s values. Very stoic. Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck are the key players
Cognitive therapy is now proliferated into a number of different schools such as dialectical behaviour therapy and acceptance commitment therapy, although increasingly evidence suggests that outcomes are as much based on the relationship as it is on the approach.
Although the psychotherapies can be very tribal (they are competing for research money, career opportunities and reasons to treat patients) and there is resistance to losing their identity, today many theories and therapies are moving towards integrative approaches that utilise interventions from different schools. Second increasingly, different tribes are understanding that psychological processes need to be understood in terms of how the brain evolved and how it now works. In my edited book Genes on the Couch a number of authors from different schools of therapy explored the evolution processes that underpin their models. So, there are increasing approaches that are rooted in basic brain science. Thirdly therapies are becoming what we call multimodal, partly after the work of people at Arnold Lazarus, although they do not always want to acknowledge this.
For me one of the major developments has been compassion focused therapy which tries to tick all those boxes. It is an evolutionary and neuroscience-based approach that pays particular attention to the fact that we are an eusocial species and highly open and regulated via social relationships, particularly affiliative ones. It is also a multimodal therapy that integrates interventions from other approaches but pays particular attention to body states, motivation and intention. It also uses many of the contemplative practices for compassionate mind training. What we are moving towards more and more however is developing interventions that change physiological systems even gene methylation and phenotype. That is likely to be the future and also to match interventions with phenotypes.
While many psychotherapies seek to improve our ability to understand and pay attention the content of our minds of particular note over the last 20 years has seen considerable development and research into two areas that have been inspired by the contemplative traditions especially but not only Buddhism. Meditation practices in the West have existed for quite a while now and were significantly brought to the general public by the Beatles and the Maharishi with transcendental meditation, something that took my fancy in the early 70s. ‘Om’ to you all.
Jon Kabit Zin was one of the foremost clinicians to bring mindfulness into the clinic to help people with chronic pain. Mindfulness is slightly different to transcendental meditation because there are two elements to it. One is observing our sensory experience (what we can see, hear, smell in all its detail) in the present moment. You might also focus on the experience of the breath coming in through the nose and out to those and so on. This is called focused mindfulness. The other is observing the arising of thoughts, emotions, motives and desires as they arise in the mind which is open and mindful. Both forms of mindfulness are partly to help us to disengage from the stream of archetypal energies that can drive us into harmful actions or keep us locked in painful states of mind. Since that time mindfulness training has proliferated and there are now many forms of it. You can find about Jon Kabit-Zinn’s extraordinary contribution on his homepage.
There are however different approaches to mindfulness and my own has been more in Mahayana traditions which focuses on compassion cultivation
Paul is currently a patron of the Mindfulness Association.
The explosion of mindfulness into many aspects of life has been extraordinary including for therapists to become more mindful in their reactions to their clients, to help clients with depression, anxiety and stress, to help management and organisational structures. A useful review can be found at:
Keng, S. L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical psychology review, 31(6), 1041-1056.
Dan Siegel too has also been very active in integrating mindfulness and awareness training with therapy and for children for example see books 1. The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration 2. Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Kindness.
A very helpful and fascinating book that links our understanding of evolutionary biology with Buddhist contemplative practices has been by David Barash (2015). Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science. Oxford University Press. He moves easily between Buddhist concepts of emptiness through to how different viruses change the way bodies and brains work.
One reason that mindfulness and attention awareness training are so important is because it helps us to pay attention to the chaotic and multidimensional nature of our minds. It gives us an opportunity to learn how to pay attention to the different archetypal forces playing out within us, and rather than passively allowing these archetypal dramas to act through us, we can start to choose how we want to operate in the world. So, mindfulness is a way of paying attention on purpose so that we become much more ‘mind aware’ and therefore are able to choose our behaviour. The Dalai Lama once gave an example of how, when he was young he used to like to fix watches that he took from the travellers to Lhasa. Nearing completion of one watch he dropped a screw in the mechanism and in his frustration, took a hammer and smashed the watch. The point he said was that in that moment he had lost mindfulness and therefore had done exactly the opposite of his true intent which had been to make a beautiful watch, work. Now there was no chance at all of meeting that intention. Mindfulness is a first stage to choosing action - and of course we would argue that allied to compassion and prosocial training we are more likely to choose those compassionate actions.
It is therefore wonderful to see mindfulness being taken to schools to help children become more mind aware and learn mindfulness skills.
Certainly, when I was growing up, and even when my children were growing up, there was nothing like this available to help young people recognise that our minds are very tricky and full of all kinds of wonderful but also very destructive potentials. Few would have predicted these amazing developments 20 years ago.
Focusing on strengths and positive experiences
The last 20 years has seen a fantastic increase in studies on the importance of positive and particularly affiliative experiences.
One of the big changes was the development of what is now called positive psychology, pioneered by Martin Seligman. This does indeed highlight the importance of focusing on strengths and competencies, virtues and values.
Positive psychology includes kindness and compassion as one of the core qualities to cultivate. This does not mean that other psychology was negative psychology. It is more about the focus on how to cultivate happiness, meaningfulness and prosocial behaviour.
In addition, people like Rick Hanson who wrote the fascinating book called the Buddha’s Brain has shown ways in which we can link neuroplasticity and how we can train our minds holding onto the feelings associated with positive events. The reason, to use one of his expressions, is because our minds are like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. Hence negative events are more likely to be held in the brain and influence the wiring of the brain but we can train to hold positive.
So basically, the more we practise and rehearse a focus on the positive, without being simply in Lala land of ‘all is wonderful regardless’, can help to change our brains in particular ways.
Another major contributor to this research endeavour has been Barbara Fredrickson. For many years she has been exploring the evolutionary function of positive emotions (as broaden and build) and recently, has been focusing particularly on what you might call micro moments of affiliative relating.
You can also catch her in conversation with Dan Siegel in their chapter in my recent compassion book.
Fredrickson, B.L & Siegel D.J. (2017). Broaden and build theory meets interpersonal neurobiology as a lens on compassion and positivity resonance. In, P. Gilbert (Ed). Compassion: Concepts, Research and Applications. (p. 203-217). London: Routledge.