The meaning of life…

My last two posts have (perhaps presumptively) told you what you should know. That advice was the product of my years in academia and private practice – I wanted to share my ideas and observations (as well as the actual evidence base) about what really works for physical and psychological health and wellbeing.

Meaning of life

Today I’d like to extend that line of thinking off with today’s post, again, one that I’ve been wanting to write for quite some time. As far as I’m concerned, it does what it says on the tin, but as everyone has a slightly different philosophical take on the big question, I’ll try and present (again) alongside an evidence base.

So, let’s start with my beliefs (based on reading, research and observation): as far as I’m concerned, the most important things you can do as a human being are to overcome your limbic system, to learn to be compassionate, and to encourage others to do the same – this is the only meaning of life that makes any sense for the continuation of the human species (and our continued coexistence with an increasingly damaged planetary ecosystem). Let’s break this down, and I’ll try and explain what I mean.

I’ve written extensively in previous posts about understanding and overcoming our “inner monkey” (most notably, here, here and here). Let’s recap (briefly). We have an evolved brain. Although we managed to evolve a pretty good level of intelligence, culminating in our development of language (and the ability to transmit memes), for a large part of our evolution we adapted for survival in a dangerous world. As such, we developed a dominant brain system (our midbrain and limbic system) for alerting us to danger, and for forcing us to act (either to fight or flee) when we perceive it. The system works great if you’re a primitive human who doesn’t live in modern society. In the modern world, the limbic system doesn’t do such a great job. Don’t get me wrong, this part of our brain is still important to us – it helps form and regulate memories, allows for social attachment, provides us with feelings of pleasure, and helps us gauge risk (although this system is also flawed) – but it hasn’t kept pace with the development of our higher functioning brain (the cerebral cortex and prefrontal lobes) or with our changing society and technology, and it’s still primarily concerned with assessing the environment for risks and acting as an early warning system. Because it works on false positives, this part of our brain is jumpy (so it goes off when it doesn’t need to). Because it evolved when assessing danger was based on sensory input, it’s not able to distinguish between real and imagined dangers (so we’re bombarded with warnings even when the danger isn’t real). Because it responds to perceived danger with psychologically loud ‘warning’ systems (we like to call these emotions), it tends to modify our behaviour (because it evolved to be able to take over our behaviour when we’re in danger) – and it’s these behavioural modifications that screw us up (and, by extension, the planet, and everyone around us).

How do we act when we allow our limbic system to modify our behaviours? Well, if it’s our mesolimbic dopamine system at work (approach system), we’ll want to possess something, or repeat our exposure to a behaviour or chemical. Taken to extreme, this results in unrestrained avarice, addiction, or rape (this is the extreme outcome of approach-modified behaviour). In between, we get excessive material desire, overuse of recreational drugs, or overeating, and sexual behaviour that places the individual or his or her partner at risk. If it’s our amygdala controlling our behaviour we’re going to want to fight or flee so, at the extreme end, we get unrestrained violence, road rage, mob violence, looting (anger-based), or social withdrawal, panic attacks, crippling fear or phobias, and PTSD (anxiety-based). In between, we either act like arseholes, or modify our behaviour to avoid things we find difficult or confronting.

And here’s the even crappier bit – because we need to construct a self-narrative that allows us to perceive a stable self, we’ll justify our behaviour post-hoc, with a story that either absolves us of blame (usually in the approach or anger situations), or that casts us as weak and ineffectual (during and after avoidance situations). This allows people to either behave like wankers (and believe that it’s OK), or to develop crippling internal cognitive loops in which they convince themselves that life is terrible and that they’re incapable of a desired action. Either way, we end up with behaviour that is very poor for the ongoing cohesion, development and wellbeing of humans (and by extension, our ecosystem). Most disturbing of all, is that the majority of us behave in these ways (to greater or lesser degrees) at least some (and often most) of the time. No wonder we’re fucked…

So, meaning of life rule#1 (restated slightly): Learn to recognise when your limbic system is trying to modify your behaviour and then act differently. It’s that simple. You are not your limbic system, but it has evolved to have a strong ability to influence your behaviour – if you let it. Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to learn to recognise limbic system activity and to then act in an alternative way. Put clearly, we all need to learn to stop being violent, selfish (poo-flinging) monkeys.

How? Like this:

1) Be aware of what’s going on in your head and body. They will be full of thoughts and emotions, and there’s not much you can do about these. But you can observe them. When you notice that a thought or emotion is trying to get your attention (or has your attention and is trying to get you to act in a certain way) label it correctly: “I am aware of a thought” or “I am aware of the sensation of … in my body”. Be specific if you want: “my limbic system has activated based on a perceived danger, resulting in the feeling that I interpret as anger”. It might sound ridiculous, but by doing this you can learn to recognise and identify what’s actually going on (is it any more ridiculous to fly off the handle at every small frustration?).

2) Once you’ve labelled a thought or emotion correctly, return your attention to the present moment. An easy way to do this is by simply closing your eyes and taking a deep breath – concentrating on the breath as it enters and leaves your body. The simple act of concentrating on your breath can be enough to bring you back to now.

3) Choose how you want to act – and here’s the important bit – not how your limbic system wants you to act, but how you would like to be able to act in difficult situations. Have a read of my post on values (here) – it might help.

4) Repeat and many times as you need to. Probably hundreds or even thousands of times per day. Eventually you’ll get the hang of it. Then you’ll relapse…

This little routine is the basis for modern, mindfulness-based therapies. It’s also the basis for Eastern practices including Buddhism and Yoga. In other words, people figured this out about 4000 years ago, but only a few have actually practised it. Our modern challenge is to get as many people as possible recognising the effects of their limbic systems and modifying their behaviour to act in values-congruent ways.

OK, onto meaning of life part 2. Last week, I wrote about compassion, and why it’s really good for us (and, by extension, those around us). I also wrote about cultivating compassion, both internally and for others. I don’t want to repeat myself, so instead, some evidence-based practice for you (after this brief interlude).

Researchers studying meditation have noticed some interesting things. People who practice a mindfulness-based meditation regularly, tend not only to be calmer, happier and physically and psychologically healthier than nonmeditators, but also experience increased activation of their left-prefrontal cortex alongside reduced activity in the amygdala, even (or especially depending on your viewpoint) when placed in stressful situations. There is reasonable speculation (backed up by fMRI studies – themselves somewhat contentious) that  by meditating regularly, these people have experienced neural remodelling that allows them to interpret experiences differently. Instead of a perceived danger automatically triggering a fight or flight response, it is mediated (possibly by the anterior cingulate cortex – the communication pathway between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system), allowing alternative responses. In other words, through meditation, these people have rewired their brains so that it’s a lot easier to act in a measured, reasoned or compassionate manner in situations where most people would respond with fear, anger or violence. In fact, there’s evidence that up-regulated activity in the left prefrontal cortex ramps down amygdala activity (and vice versa) – it means that the more you meditate, the more you activate the area of the brain that most likely generates feelings of compassion.

That finding, in itself, is pretty amazing, and ought to be enough to get everyone meditating. But it doesn’t, for a few reasons. First is the ‘woo-woo’ associated with meditation – it’s been made out to be something that’s mystical and spiritual and, frankly, that in itself puts most people off. Second, the people who need it most are often highly influenced by their limbic systems and either feel that their behaviour is perfectly justified (and therefore doesn’t need to be changed – because it’s everyone else’s fault), or feel helpless and hopeless as victims of their limbic responses (fear and anxiety) and, therefore, unable to do anything about these terrible feelings.

Let me be clear – there is nothing mystical or woo-woo about meditation. At its simplest, mediation is simply sitting (or lying) eyes closed (or open!), whilst concentrating on breathing. That’s it. With practice, people tend to become quite good at observing themselves while meditating. They learn to recognise when their thoughts are wandering, and at returning their attention to a single point (their breathing). They get good at recognising when an emotion is triggered, observe it from a distance, and then return their attention back to their breath. In other words, meditators learn control of their attentional focus, and how to disengage from their thoughts and emotions. This allows them a measure of conscious control over how they react to limbic system events – they choose to observe the event, and then to act differently. It’s kind of like they’ve built a firewall between the limbic system and the prefrontal lobes. Interestingly, many regular meditators choose to act with compassion. It’s kind of the opposite of a typical limbic reaction.

Want to learn to meditate? Here’s a ‘cut-down’ version that I’ve taught to (literally) thousands of people. It only takes 10-minutes a day (and that doesn’t even have to be 10 minutes at once). Even better, the evidence suggests that it offers the same benefits as traditional meditation. It’s called “Benson’s relaxation”, but don’t worry about the relaxation bit so much (it’s a nice side effect) – this is a very effective way of learning (and getting the benefits of) mindful meditation in a short period of time.

1) Figure out when and how you’re going to do this – it requires daily practise, so work out when you’re able to make it happen. Many of my clients do this in their cars before and at the end of their daily commute. If you’re worried about falling asleep, use a countdown timer, or download a mediation timer app. It’s useful to start with two or three minutes, and gradually increase the amount of time. Do as many times a day as you can to get (at least ) at total of 10 minutes.

2) Sit comfortably, and close your eyes.

3) Concentrate on your breathing, in and out through your nose.

4) Focus on an imagined image, something simple, and move it in time with your breathing. I like a curtain fluttering in and out of a window – but pick whatever you like. It helps to keep the same image every time.

5) Your mind will try and interrupt you (lots) with images, thoughts, feelings, urges, etc. Every time you notice this, simply acknowledge and return your attention to the image and breathing. At least at the beginning, you’ll probably spend the entire time chasing your thoughts around. This is normal. There will also probably be an urge to stop, or frustration that you’re unable to concentrate. When they happen, notice each of these and return your attention to your image.

6) Finally, as you breathe out, say a word to yourself (inside your head), like ‘calm’, or ‘relax’ – it doesn’t matter what you say – just use the same word each time.

7) Try it for 10 days and see if you notice any differences. After you’ve got the hang of it, try and focus on your compassion, both to yourself and to others. Work on noticing others without judgement, and recognising other’s right to be human (being human is forgivable, acting like a dick is not). Instead of allowing your limbic system to make you act poorly (anger, frustration, etc.), choose to act differently.

8) Encourage others to try this. Model compassion wherever and whenever you can, especially when you’re stressed, tired or pissed off.

OK, we’ve gone a little longer than usual – so hope you’re still with me – almost there.

So, the meaning of life rule#2: compassion to yourself and to others is the opposite of typical monkey responses. By choosing to act in a compassionate manner you are circumventing your outmoded evolutionary programming and giving yourself and, by extension the rest of the human race and our extended biosphere, the very best chance it has.

One Reply to “The meaning of life…”

  1. Another great post, Jeremy. I know a few people with very overactive limbic systems who could exhibit a bit of compassion – towards whom I try to be compassionate.

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