Compassion and the human operating system…

I’d like to speculate a bit today (OK, a lot) and, in the process, mash-up some ideas from evolutionary psychology, computer science, and modern psychological therapy. Bear with me, and let’s see what happens…

Plotting human origins back through time, we start with single-cell organisms. At this stage, the only real evolutionary precept was to survive for long enough to multiply, and so those organisms that had the capacity to do so, survived and multiplied. As we tracked forward, and life became more complicated, sexual reproduction came into the picture (a great way of adding diversity to an existing genome), requiring a wider set of characteristics. Survival was still important, but now the ability to “impress” a potential mate was also necessary. Over time, increasing complexity, the development of a nervous system, the diversification of species, and the increasing specialisation required for survival, added to the repertoire required to live long enough to procreate. Finally, with greater complexity came the potential for collaboration between members of a given species – the more collaboration, the increased chance of survival. So now, behaviours that enhanced cooperation became optimised for evolutionary selection. Eventually, the requirement to contribute to the overall wellbeing of the group, and to look after weaker members (and young) also increased survival. Greater complexity allowed us to live longer, and to care for our young for longer periods of time, meaning that we could be selected to mature at a slower rate and, as a result, pack more complexity into the system (such as increased cognitive ability and greater learning capacity).

A quick metaphorical sidestep: all computers possess a BIOS (basic input-output system) which contains the low-level, basic instruction set required for the computer to operate. The BIOS tells the computer what to do when it turns on, how to access its various peripherals (like memory and its hard drive), and how to interact with the operating system that runs on top of the BIOS.

Now, think of our early evolutionary adaptations as aspects of our BIOS. This operating set became more complex over time, but underpins our functioning. Its primary instruction set includes survival behaviours, procreation behaviours, collaboration behaviours, and warning systems (in the form of primary emotions). It also has certain needs in order to develop successfully: security, safety, connectedness to others, and kindness. These aspects of human nurturing, over time, have become fundamental precursors to healthy human brain development in children, and a necessary aspect of ongoing adult functioning. So not only are basic behaviours embedded in our BIOS, so are some elemental needs.

As humans brains became more complex (probably the result of increasing requirements based on the demands of collaboration and cooperation, optimising aspects such as language capacity), we started to develop an operating system (OS) to sit on top of the BIOS. As per our computer analogy, a complex computer needs more than its BIOS to allow for involved functions. The operating system sits on top of the BIOS and is responsible for the user interface and the ability to run software. In humans, we’ve developed a complex (and remarkably stable) OS that, in a modular format, manages what we consider to be our human functions (i.e., language, visuospatial ability, future modelling, theory of mind, empathy and compassion, and self and consciousness).

For humans, the majority of problems arise when there’s a conflict between the OS and the BIOS. The BIOS has certain requirements for adequate functioning (including security, stability, and connectedness to others), and when they’re removed, or worse, when they’re not developed as part of a healthy brain structure (as a result of inadequate upbringing, abuse, trauma, etc.), the attempts by the OS to compensate results in system deoptimisation. Often, this allows for ongoing functioning (we are remarkably stable after all), albeit at poor efficiency, but occasionally it results in a BSOD (in computer parlance: Blue Screen of Death (what used to happen frequently when Microsoft OS’s crapped themselves) – or maybe Badly Sub-Optimised Development).

I mentioned that the human OS is pretty stable. It can continue to function (suboptimally) despite a lot of damage. But in order to operate well it needs a properly functioning BIOS which, in turn requires certain fundamental conditions, including the ability to form close relationships with other humans. If this ability is compromised or damaged (or missing), we’re in trouble. We’ll probably function at a basic to moderate level, but we’ll never “feel” right, or act in a way that allows us to interact meaningfully with others.

It appears that our OS runs on metaphor and narrative. That is, we form increasingly sophisticated internal representations of the external world (metaphors) and describe them to ourselves and others using narrative (a very human notion because it also requires language, and the ability to imagine and speculate). If, through poor programming, errors, or damage, we lose the ability (or never form it) to create useful metaphors or the narrative to represent them, we are unable to form the meaningful attachments to others (because we can’t conceptualise them) that help to stabilise the system. Modern psychological therapy works (at least as best I can determine) by helping the system learn how to reparse a narrative in order to build the underlying representations of healthy interaction, allowing the OS to stop conflicting with the BIOS, and resulting in greater stabilisation and fewer crashes.

In less academic-speak, I’m speculating that the process of therapy lets people with poorly formed abilities to establish an internalised representation of notions such as connection and safety, and to then act on these new concepts, resulting in increased connection with others. Over time, the combination of metaphorical representation, and practical action satisfies the primary BIOS requirements, allowing for fewer OS conflicts, and increased system optimisation.

OK, that was highly conjectural, but I want to go a teeny bit further. In modern psychological therapy, one of the most important aspects is the notion of compassion. Put simply, compassion is the ability to conceptualise and act on the needs of another, by understanding that person’s needs. The ability to think and act compassionately requires a lot of higher brain function, and a suppression of mid-brain function (angry or anxious people can’t easily be compassionate – they’re too caught up in basic survival routines – meaning that higher-brain resources are being redirected to sustaining these routines), and this only happens when the system is running optimally, without OS/BIOS conflicts. In a psychologically effective therapeutic setting, the psychologist models a compassionate relationship, by openly accepting the client, removing judgement, normalising experiences, and gently encouraging and supporting effective human interactions. Over time, this modelling helps the client to form in an internalised representation of this model that, in turn, allows him or her to start to practise acts of self-compassion (especially through increased real-world actions like self-care, a reduction in harsh, internalised self-concepts, and improved human interactions), and compassion toward others.

Coming back to my original premise, that humans have been optimised by evolution and that, over time, this has included increasingly sophisticated operating sets such as collaborative action; I believe that a pinnacle of collaboration and cooperation is being able to think and act compassionately. To do so consistently, however, requires that the other evolutionary subsets (such as connection, support, and kindness) be both understood and provided for; without these basics, there are too many internal conflicts for optimal functioning. Scaling this idea, for a society to function at any sort of optimal level, a fundamental requirement should be allowing for a stable, safe, loving, and connected upbringing, and the ability to sustain these states through adult life. Governments that ignore these needs and, instead, provide fear, instability, and distrust under the guise of security are culpable in creating social environments that, not only discourage basic integration and functioning, but also reduce the ability of the population to think and act compassionately. Instead, with increasing OS/BIOS conflicts, we run the risk that acts of violence, intolerance, aggression, and tribalism become normalised.

One Reply to “Compassion and the human operating system…”

  1. It’s also worth noting that compassion allows for a stance that isn’t just about promoting the wellbeing of humans. Compassionate humans can conceptualise and act on the needs of other species, and the larger biome. Angry, frightened, anxious humans will desperately attempt to fulfil the needs of their BIOS at the expense of other humans and the other species with whom we interact.

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