Social Challenges of our OLD MAMMALIAN Brain

Online resources for exploring the practical implications of navigating the modern world with the Stone-Age Instincts we all have inherited. The image at right playfully shows:

  • REPTILIAN BRAIN - Lizard Legacy - our physical instincts

  • OLD MAMMALIAN BRAIN - Furry Li'l Mammal - our social instincts
  • NEW MAMMALIAN BRAIN - Monkey Mind - our interpretive instincts

  • ADVANCED - Higher Porpoise - our executive brain and spiritual instincts

    Evolutionary Insights about Romantic Attraction and Bonded Love

          "Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on Earth."

    Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist


    Note: HELEN FISHER is a research professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. She has written five books on the evolution and future of human sexuality, monogamy, adultery and divorce, gender differences in the brain, and the chemistry of romantic love. Watch her 2006 TED talk (left) and also her 2008 TED talk and other lectures.

    Central to her work is distinguishing three very different manifestations of "love" — each with its own neurobiology: lust, romantic attraction, and bonded attachment. A challenge is that typically there is a time lag between the waning of romantic attraction and the onset of bonded attachment.

    "I no longer feel like an angsty mutant. It was rather comforting and a little romantic to hear Dr. Fisher reiterate that humans have suffered for love for millions of years. All of humanity is my support group. My feelings are completely natural and I don't have to hate or attempt to control them. I am, however, the master of my actions, which is a big responsiblity." a 22-year-old woman recovering from the end of a romantic relationship (after watching the above video)

    VIEW OR DOWNLOAD: "Defining the Brain Systems of Lust, Romantic Attraction, and Attachment" by Helen Fisher et. al, 2002, Archives of Sexual Behavior (6 pages in PDF).

    SEE ALSO TEXT: "Five Scientific Reasons Why Breakups are Devastating" - by Adoree Durayappah, Huffington Post, 2/23/11.

  • "A Cold War Fought by Women" - a disturbing scientific report (2013) on how modern cultural conditions, while liberating for young women, may have exacerbated female competition and psychological aggression in competing for stable male partnerships.

    HOOK-UP DEPRESSION - Helen Fisher's distinctions between the drives for sex, romantic love, and bonded attachment, coupled with gender differences in the risks and consequences of copulation (as understood by the "standard narrative" in evolutionary psychology) make it easy to understand why young women (not men) suffer "hookup depression."
        CONSIDER: Prior to the advent of reliable birth control, abortion, and DNA paternity testing, casual sexual intercourse was far more consequential for the woman than the man. Thus when sexual acts are not preceded by the build-up of focussed, romantic attraction, an evolutionary perspective casts light on what has seriously gone wrong for young women on college campuses.

  • "The Emotional Costs of Hooking Up" - The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 2010.

  • "Hooking Up: Gender Differences, Evolution, and Pluralistic Ignorance", Evolutionary Psychology 2010

  • "Sex Without Emotional Involvement: An Evolutionary Interpretation of Sex Differences." - Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1995.

  • "Hooking Up Comes with a Price, Naomi Wolf tells DePauw Audience" - DePauw University News, 2005.

  • "Porn Doesn't Whet Men's Appetites—It Turns Them Off the Real Thing" - New York Magazine.

  • Naomi Wolf VIDEO (30 seconds)        |        Philip Zimbardo VIDEO (5 min)
  • NAOMI WOLF: "The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as 'porn-worthy'. Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that, as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention."


    STORY: "I wonder if he's rich?"

    A woman was more than a week into her two-week silent meditation retreat with several dozen other long-time practitioners of vipassana meditation. Protocol was to keep one's eyes averted from others at all times. Nevertheless, sitting silently at lunch that day, she noticed her mind obsessed with wanting to sneak a peak at the face of the man sitting directly across the table. For 15 minutes she noticed and let pass the urge, but it was relentless. Finally, she glanced up and quickly down again. Her mind instantly registered an observation and a question: "He's good-looking! I wonder if he's rich?"

    STORY: "No question, I would have given myself to him"

    [Michael Dowd reports] A woman came up to me after my program and thanked me profusely for mentioning the effects on women's sex drive when in the presence of high-status men. She told me this story:
         "When my kids were really young, Bill Clinton's motorcade drove past my house, and I actually saw him in the car. I felt this sudden wave of desire wash over me. If he'd have stopped, no question I would have given myself to him — and I was happily married!"
         NOTE: When Michael was recounting this story to an audience of 90 people at a church in 2010, a woman made this comment during the Q&A: "I am so relieved that you told the story about the woman seeing Bill Clinton in his motorcade, because a very similar thing happened to me when I met him (as part of a governmental panel) while he was president. I'm a lesbian, but the powerful attraction I felt toward him for an instant made me question whether I really was!"

    STORY: "When my husband became a celebrity"

    [Michael Dowd reports] After a program I did in Los Angeles, a very attractive young woman told me this story:
         "I loved your program. I particularly resonated with the part on the brain science and how men's testosterone levels rise with status. My husband just became a major celebrity in a foreign country — and now we're getting a divorce. While he was away he told me on the phone that he would, in fact, be flirting with and probably being sexual with other women. Learning from you that there is a biological basis for this helps me not take it as something personal, as something wrong about me."


    Michael Shermer
       "What science offers for explaining the feelings we experience when believing in God or falling in love is complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. I find it deeply interesting to know that when I fall in love with someone my initial lustful feelings are enhanced by dopamine, a neurohormone produced by the hypothalamus that triggers the release of testosterone, the hormone that drives sexual desire, and that my deeper feelings of attachment are reinforced by oxytocin, a hormone synthesized in the hypothalamus and secreted into the blood by the pituitary. Further, it is instructive to know that such hormone-induced neural pathways are exclusive to monogamous pair-bonded species as an evolutionary adaptation for the long-term care of helpless infants. We fall in love because our children need us! Does this in any way lessen the qualitative experience of falling in love and doting on one's children? No more than unweaving a rainbow into its constituent parts reduces the aesthetic appreciation of it." [from "A Templeton Conversation"]



    Christopher Ryan

    SEX AT DAWN - 2010 bestselling book on the evolutionary roots of marital infidelity by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

  • Excerpt from Christopher Ryan's blog: "Five Things an Affair May Not Mean"
    In Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality Cacilda Jetha, my coauthor (and wife), and I argue that there's a good reason long-term sexual monogamy is hard for human beings. The evidence we present in the book shows that til death do us part may be a wonderful ideal, but it's anything but an easy (or natural) path for most human beings. Yes, we are moral beings (most of us) with the capacity to override our evolved predispositions to some extent, but maybe, just maybe, an occasional slip on that long and arduous path is to be expected.

  • Excerpt from Christopher Ryan's blog: "Sexual Evolution and the War Between the Sexes"
    People (most of whom haven't bothered to read our book) assume we're advocating open marriages and rampant promiscuous rutting in the streets. We're not. It's true we argue the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that no creature on Earth spends as much time fussing over sex as Homo sapiens and that our turbo-charged libido was key to our evolutionary success as a species. When you look at the available evidence, it's clear that human beings' bodies, minds, and sexual habits all reflect a rather immodest prehistory. But as we say in our book, even we are unsure what to do with this information — other than write it down and spread the news.
        If we advocate anything to readers, it would be a "harm reduction" approach to infidelity in place of the "Just Say No" response responsible for a huge amount of needless suffering. Because of the type of creature we are, non-monogamous tendencies will always be within us; whether and how we act on these tendencies is another matter. A deeper, more informed understanding of where these feelings come from can only help us in choosing an appropriate response to them. Our greatest ambition is to provoke conversations that will lead people to clarify their understanding of their own sexual nature before they sign on to long-term commitments they can't change later without making a mess of their lives.

  • VIDEO: TED Talk by Christopher Ryan, "Why Is Sex Such a Big Deal" (June 2012)
  • August 2013, two new papers were published on the evolutionary functions of monogamy in mammals — and specifically primates. An excellent synopsis is by Carl Zimmer in The New York Times, "Despite Two New Studies on Motives for Monogamy, the Debate Continues".



    MICHAEL DOWD's Blogposts:

    "Zoey 101, Brain Science 101"

    "Evolutionary Morality and Ethics"

    "Lizard Legacy Bites Three More Alphas"

    "There's Nothing Shameful About Accountability"

    "Sex and the Olympics"

    "President Obama's Testosterone Levels"

    "Sex Scandals and Instincts: It's Your Biology, Stupid!"




    SEE ALSO PDF: "Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It's a Problem, and What We All Can Do" - by Scott Edelstein

    Evolutionary Insights about Human Bonds with Animals

    "Bring a Furry Mammal into Your Life"

     STORY told to Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd, by their friend Laura Wood

    "Therapy as it exists now is permeated with the assumption that the issues people struggle with arise out of their personal histories. It's not that this assumption is necessarily wrong, but very often the issues we struggle with are the same ones our ancestors (both human and prehuman) struggled with for millions of years. Many people go to therapy because of a vague feeling of discontent that cannot be articulated, because in reality it springs from a preverbal ancient source. As Michael Dowd outlines in his book, Thank God for Evolution, we humans have four brains in our head that evolved over time. Our old mammalian brain, our 'Furry Li'l Mammal', freaks out if it doesn't have a burrow and someone furry to cuddle with. No amount of talking can take away this brain's sadness and dis-ease if these conditions are not satisfied.
         "If you live alone, the real solution is to save the money you would have spent on therapy trying to discover some painful childhood memory and bring a furry mammal into your life. Most typically a cat or dog, the furry mammal who cuddles with you can fulfill a need that all of our ancestors have had far back into the distant past. The attachment that people have to their animal companions is often mistaken for anthropomorphism, but it's the other way around. Cats and dogs have the same Furry Lil Mammal brain that we do and these brains understand each other. As Richard Dawkins explains in his book Ancestors' Tale, cats, dogs, and humans shared a common ancestor 85 million years ago. We all hail from the bloodline Laurasiathere.
         Late at night, Fatima the Cat and I snuggle next to the fire in my cozy brick burrow, and I know deep down that all is right with the world."
         NOTE: Three years later (in 2011), Michael Dowd was using this quotation in one of his powerpoint programs at a church in Kansas. In the Q&A period, a woman in her 50s whose voice was breaking with emotion, told of how she has lived her entire adult life alone and how her animal companions "saved my life." She then thanked Michael for "validating what I already know and feel."





    3. PLAY and MUSIC
    Evolutionary Insights about the Importance of Mammalian (and Human!) Play & Music


    Mismatched Instincts: The Necessity of Play v. the Seriousness of Modern Life

    In the course of evolution, PLAY emerges in mammals.

       Stuart Brown: "Why Play Is Vital — No Matter Your Age"

    "The thing that's so unique about our species is that we're really designed to play through our whole lifetime . . . the basis of human trust is established through play signals."

    MUSIC: Just as the human response to rhythm is thought to be linked to the ancient Reptilian part of our brain, MELODY seems to be rooted in the way that mammalian mothers and young typically vocalize with one another. Melody, thus, affects the Old Mammalian, emotional core of the evolved human brain. Some scientists posit that our earliest human ancestors extended melodic singing into adulthood to ramp up emotional communication prior to the advent of symbolic language.

  • VIDEO: "A Manifesto for Play" - Steve Keil at a TED Talk in Bulgaria, 6/15/11.

  • "Birth of the Beat: Music's Roots May Lie in Melodic Exchanges Between Mothers and Babies"


    Evolutionary Insights about the Importance of Carrying and Co-Sleeping


    Infant-Parent Co-Sleeping in an Evolutionary Perspective

    James J. McKenna, PhD., writes in "Rethinking Healthy Infant Sleep":

    "Judging from the infant's biology and evolutionary history, proximity to parental sounds, smells, gases, heat, and movement during the night is precisely what the human infant's developing system 'expects,' since these stimuli were reliably present throughout the evolution of the infant's sleep physiology. The human infant is born with only 25 percent of its adult brain volume, is the least neurologically mature primate at birth, develops the most slowly, and while at birth is prepared to adapt, is not yet adapted. In our enthusiasm to push for infant independence (a recent cultural value), I sometimes think we forget that the infant's biology cannot change quite so quickly as can cultural child care patterns."

    "Infant-Parent Co-Sleeping in an Evolutionary Perspective: Implications for Understanding Infant Sleep Development and the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome" - James McKenna 2005 journal Paediactric Respiratory Reviews.

    "Why Babies Should Never Sleep Alone" - multi-author paper in 1993 journal Sleep.

    CONSIDER: For almost all of human evolution, our ancestors were foragers. There were no villages, and no huts or shelters. Under such circumstances, if an infant was ever set down and left alone beyond physical or eye contact, that infant could easily have become a predator's meal. For an infant to cry when it is left alone, especially in the dark, or when finding itself alone upon awakening, is a functional adaptation. For most of our evolution, human infants and small children were rarely put down — and certainly did not sleep alone.

    BELOW LEFT: Michael Dowd carries his first-born grandchild (3 days old) on his bare chest, bound in a hands-free "baby wrap" and covered by a wool shawl. The infant slept peacefully that way for nearly three hours as Michael worked on his laptop, washed dishes, and even ran the garbage disposal.

    BELOW RIGHT: In 2010 Michael Dowd sent his daughter Sheena an email (excerpted below) just before she gave birth:

        "As you may already know, practically nothing is more important for healthy brain and body development in the first 9 months or so of an infant's life than lots of body-to-body contact with one or more loving adults, and breastfeeding. This, of course, makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. For 99.9% of human history it would have been considered utterly stupid to leave a child unattended or un-carried. They all too quickly would have become food for predatory animals. This is also why the majority of infants cry when not in the arms or on the body of an adult, or when expected to sleep in a bed or in a room separate from their parents. This would have never happened for virtually all of human history.
        One of the main things I credit for how relatively healthy, physically and emotionally, was yours, Shane's, and Miriam's development was the fact that your mom and I carried you each around on our bodies the majority of your waking hours for the first 6-9 months after birth. At that time (in the early 1980s) there were only a few books written on the subject. The one we found most helpful at the time (which I'm told is still one of the better ones) was Jean Liedloff,'s The Continuum Concept. Two other highly acclaimed books in the field: The Baby Book, and The Attachment Parenting Book."


    What an Evolutionary Perspective Teaches

  • "Depression's Evolutionary Roots" - by Paul W. Andrews Scientific American 9/25/09

    LEFT: Helen Fisher: "Anti-Depressants Deflate the Drives for Sex, Romance, Attachment":

    "A hundred million prescriptions for anti-depressants are written annually in the United States. A large number of these prescriptions are for SSRI's, serotonin boosters, like Prozac and Paxil and Zoloft. We know these drugs kill the sex drive. But I and my colleague Andy Thomson maintain that these drugs also kill your ability to fall in love and your ability to stay in love." more in pdf

    CONSIDER: If a mammal encounters a chronic challenge and repeatedly attempts to solve the problem, yet to no avail, it may be adaptive to reduce metabolism and increase sleep, in hopes that the environment itself might change before one runs out of stores of fat.





       Lizard Legacy to the Rescue!

    The physical body both responds to depression (stooped shoulders, down-turned face, reduced metabolism) and can help to counteract it. Standing tall, reaching high to the sky, facing directly into the sun, putting on a slight smile, or engaging in vigorous physical exercise (including dance) are bodily actions that all signal back up to the emotional brain that the situation must be okay.

    If your "Furry Li'l Mammal" (Old Mammalian emotional brain) is depressed, then stimulation of the "Lizard Legacy" (Reptilian brain) by DRUMMING or RHYTHMIC EXERCISE can be helpful.


    Autism, Psychopathy, and Other Forms of Brain Malfunction

  • The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, by Simon Baron-Cohen (2011)


  • SIMON BARON-COHEN: "The challenge is to explain, without resorting to the all-too-easy concept of evil, how people are capable of causing extreme hurt to one another. So let's substitute the term 'evil' with the term 'empathy erosion.' Empathy erosion can arise because of corrosive emotions, such as bitter resentment, or desire for revenge, or blind hatred, or a desire to protect. In theory these are transient emotions, the empathy erosion reversible. But empathy erosion can be the result of more permanent psychological characteristics.
         "When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the 'I' mode. In such a state we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things. Most of us are capable of doing this occasionally. We might be quite capable of focusing on our work without sparing a thought for the homeless person on the street outside our office. But whether we are in this state transiently or permanently, there is no 'thou' visibleŅat least, not a thou with different thoughts and feelings. Treating other people as if they were just objects is one of the worst things you can do to another human being, to ignore their subjectivity, their thoughts and feelings."

    REVIEW OF The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty:

    Connie Barlow writes, "The ONE CRITICISM I have of this otherwise excellent book is that there was little evidence that the author had taken in the evolutionary reasons that in-group / out-group dynamics are also an instinctive part of normal human development and moral judgment. The chapter on the history of genocide cries out for someone to re-interpret heinous crimes by nonpsychopathic 'normal' individuals from this perspective. Away goes the blame in such cases, and in rushes an imperative for all our cultures, all our societies, all our nations to encourage in both religious and secular contexts an expanding circle of who qualifies as one of us."

    on the SOCIAL consequences of our mismatched instincts

  • "Lusty Tales and Hot Sales: Romance E-Books" - New York Times 12/8/10

  • "[John] Edwards Indicted in Campaign Fund Case" - New York Times 6/4/11

  • "John Edwards, a Cautionary Tale" - editorial, New York Times 6/3/11

  • "Can Mark Sanford Save His Marriage? Probably Not" - U.S. News 7/2/09

  • "Jenny Sanford: The Political Spouse Role Model for My Daughter" - Huffington Post 6/29/09

  • AUDIO: "Infidelity, Faith, and Forgiveness" (interviews with Jenny Sanford and Gayle Haggard) - Interfaith Voices Podcast 12/8/10

  • "Married, With Infidelities" - New York Times Magazine 6/30/11 (cover article)

  • "Love and Infidelity: How Our Brains Keep Us from Straying" - Los Angeles Times 2/17/10

  • "Anthony Weiner and the Joys of Repressed Voyeuristic Titillation" - by Glenn Greenwald 7/7/11

  • "Sexting: A Disturbing New Teen Trend?" - NPR 3/11/09

  • "Girls Gone Bad" - Newsweek 2/12/07

  • "Who Knew I Was Not the Father?" - New York Times Magazine 11/17/09

  • "The Science of Gossip: Why We Can't Stop Ourselves" - by Frank T. McAndrew Scientific American 10/1/08

  • "A Couple of Chimps Sitting Around Talking" - by Natalie Angier New York Times 3/9/97

  •       "The most extraordinary fact about public awareness of evolution is not that 50 percent don't believe it, but that nearly 100 percent haven't connected it to anything of importance in their lives. The reason we believe so firmly in the physical sciences is not because they are better documented than evolution but because they are so essential to our everyday lives. We can't build bridges, drive cars, or fly airplanes without them. In my opinion, evolutionary theory will prove just as essential to our welfare and we will wonder in retrospect how we lived in ignorance for so long."

    David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone, 2007


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  • REPTILIAN BRAIN - Lizard Legacy - our physical instincts

  • OLD MAMMALIAN BRAIN - Furry Li'l Mammal - our social instincts

  • NEW MAMMALIAN BRAIN - Monkey Mind - our interpretive instincts

  • ADVANCED - Higher Porpoise - our executive brain and spiritual instincts

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