Intro & Table of Contents
It’s dessert time!
There is a juicy apple in front of you, and a slice of chocolate cake.
You are free to choose.
Or are you?
The choice was made for you – hundreds of millions of years ago!
This book is about the commonalities all 8,000,000,000 people on earth share.
Our ancestors were molded by ruthless survival pressures from the earliest days of life on the planet. Adaptations that worked long ago are still inside of us – also shared with insects and reptiles. Later additions are common to all mammals from the tiniest shrews to the most massive whales. Some capabilities were bolted on relatively recently, and are only shared with our primate cousins. And the runaway explosion of humans on the planet can only be explained by our bizarre species-level evolution.
The only way to understand how our brains work is to examine the complete evolutionary arc.
I don’t care if you are young or old, rich or poor, introverted or extroverted. It is not about our individual differences. This book describes the basic operating system of how we all deal with life.
Drop a rock. It falls and hits the ground.
Once you understand brain evolution, many of our behaviors will become more predictable. To a scary degree, we are reactive animals ruled by passions, and not the rational geniuses with free will that we like to imagine.
First the bad news: The notion that people make decisions and choices to maximize objective self-interest has been demolished. People are not rational – far from it.
Now the good news: We are finding out exactly how and why we act in these seemingly irrational ways. In other words, there is a method to our seeming madness.
My view of the brain is heavily influenced by evolutionary biology and psychology. I don’t believe we have arrived at a perfect brain design, or that humankind deserves an exalted and special place in the universe. Rather, we are a band of super-cooperative apes who have come to dominate the planet. In the process we have wiped out whole ecosystems in our voracious destructiveness. At this moment we are by far the most dominant force shaping the very destiny of life on earth.
We evolved for a particular environment, but our rapid social advances and mushrooming populations have created a bewildering new world. On the timescale of this dizzying change, evolution has effectively stopped, and we must rely on what has gotten us this far. By retracing the path that our distant ancestors took to get here, we can understand the stunning abilities and glaring weaknesses which we have inherited.
Sometimes our reactions and responses are appropriate and uncannily helpful. In the blink of an eye we can assess complex situations and reach critical life-or-death decisions. At other times, we are seemingly our own worst enemies – repeating the same mistakes, even when we know the results will be counterproductive, or even deadly.
Unlocking the true nature of the human brain is the last frontier. Recent work in fields such as biology, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, medical imaging, social science, and behavioral economics is combining to show us the inner workings of this evolutionary marvel.
This book is designed for you – the curious and intelligent searcher for truth.
I want to give you the essentials, and draw you a map of the wondrous terrain inside of the human mind.
You will forever be altered by the journey we are about to undertake together. It may seem like an alien landscape at first. But you will gain valuable perspectives which will allow you to live your life with a new appreciation of what makes us tick.
Forget the advanced technology all around you – let’s explore inside of the bony skull which guards the treasures within…
Get ready, it’s going to be a wild ride!
Table of Contents
Why You Should Read This Book
Part I – Foundations
Chapter 1 – The Lie of Rationality
The big lie
Emotions and decisions
We are the products of evolution
Chance and circumstance
Chapter 2 – The Big Picture of Brain Evolution
Life without brains
Why do we need a brain?
Following the recipe
Key brain systems
Simplifying to make it useful
Chapter 3 – Brain Basics
Experience wires the brain
Use it or lose it
Chapter 4 – How We Learn and Remember
The purpose of memory
Stages of memory
Forgetting and distortion
There is no detailed life recording
Chapter 5 – This Is Your Brain on Drugs
Emotions are signposts for survival
Repetition and emotion – the two key ways to learn
The treadmill of unhappiness
The arc of addiction
Feeding and energy balance
Food and emotions
Chapter 6 – The Chemistry of Happiness
Older and newer brain chemicals
Dopamine – motivation and energy control
Updating our mental model
The pleasure circuit in more detail
Endorphins – emergency pain suppression
Oxytocin – attachment and outgroups
Serotonin – social dominance and hierarchy
Happiness gone wrong
Part II – Reptiles and Shrews
Chapter 7 – The Autopilot and the Power of Pain
Lizards and shrews
The reptile brain – avoiding harm and ignoring most events
Fear and unhappiness
Chapter 8 – Demystifying Risk
Relativity and reference points
Sure things and surprises
Chapter 9 – The Emotional Life
Personal life experiences
Cultural overlays and interpretation
Chapter 10 – Safer in the Herd
Pluses and minuses of herds
Isolation equals death
Attachment and affection
Avoidance and approach
Status and dominance
Chapter 11 – Good Night, Sweet Dreams
The universal need for sleep
The effects of not sleeping
Dreams as a rehearsal for dangerous events
Remembering, learning, and creativity
Chapter 12 – Monkey See, Monkey Do
Getting into other people’s heads
Empathy and sympathy
Part III – Clumsy Bigheads
Chapter 13 – Humble Beginnings
Aren’t we amazing?!
Other archaic humans
Chapter 14 – Big Babies
Death by cannonball
Chapter 15 – Sexy Apes
Are we sluts?
Hunting, gathering, and screwing
The biology of love
Chapter 16 – Let Me Tell You a story
The functions of language
Storytelling and mindreading
Order out of chaos
Simulating social experiences
Gossip, tribes, and civilizations
Chapter 17 – The Dance Between Your Brains
Characteristics of the primal brain
Characteristics of the conscious brain
Part IV – Hypersocial
Chapter 18 – How We Evolved to Be Cultural Creatures
The common narrative of human dominance
The real story – cultural and genetic co-evolution
Big brains evolved for cooperative learning
How culture and genes caught fire
Chapter 19 – The Building Blocks of Culture
Whom to learn from
Social rule followers
Chapter 20 – The Social Network
No one is an island
The need for belonging and validation
Peer pressure and conforming
Ingroups and outgroups
Chapter 21 – Ownership, Fairness, and Favors
Ownership and possession
Fairness or revolt
Social and transactional spheres
Reciprocity and obligation
Chapter 22 – Conformity and Integrity
The inner lives of others
Integrity and consistency
The seeds of voluntary action
Making a public stand
Part V – What’s Next?
Chapter 23 – How to Be More Primal
Get proper sleep
Be in your body
Regularly access your intuition and emotions
Avoid artificial addictions
Don’t be a loner
Learn from others and teach something
Chapter 24 – A Personal Challenge
Appendix – Recommended Reading