Our anxious past

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    Speaking of anxiety; think for a second about the life of our common ancestor Lucy, three million years ago. She was diminutive and weak, compared to other primates at the time: she had no claws, no vicious teeth and soft, easily damageable skin. Her body hair was disappearing: looking like she was going through a case of mangy, male-pattern-baldness all over her body. She was riddled with parasites and could die from a simple tooth abscess or from picking a hangnail. And yet she had several survival advantages. One advantage; she evolved hyper-anxiety.

    She would worry about the slightest sounds or movements in her environment. Those of her relatives who were just slightly more easy-going would perished quickly when they hesitated to respond to a rustling bush or a shadowy movement. She might have looked at a bush in passing and nine times out of ten she would misinterpret what she saw. Yet, still she reacted even though she was more often wrong about what she perceived. She could see a predatory shape hiding behind it…but it was only a rock. Still she responded to the illusion of a hiding predator. Her heart may have raced, an adrenaline rush would cause her to rush away only to look back and perhaps admonish herself for reacting, and yet she would do this over and over again. She developed long term memory. Her memory retained negative events better than the positive ones (it still takes, on average, five positive encounters to regain trust when one negative incident occurs with our spouses or our friends) and she could also predict future events based on past experiences…but always she worried about everything: understandable when everything in her environment was trying to kill her. Anxiety was her survival mechanism and contributed to allowing are species to eventually dominate this planet.

    Is it any wonder then that our lives are dominated by stress and worry? In this age, worry has its place; it certainly still serves a purpose in response to perceived potential danger in our environment. But perhaps, next time you find yourself being anxious about some frivolous quality you possess or don’t possess; next time you fret over some asinine, perceived slight; next time you burden yourself with disquieting thoughts about something that you can not change or do anything about; next time you encumber yourself with some silly worry…remember that, in this regard, we are all casualties of our inherited ancestry. We live in a time where we can separate such senseless anxiousness and agitation: worry that is no longer necessary to survive.


    Simon Paynton

    Do you think that human primates are/were any more alert to danger than other species of animals?  I would have thought that life is dangerous for any creature living out in the wild.

    There is a thing called the “smoke detector principle” which means we are alerted to potential threats “just in case” they turn out to be dangerous.  I believe we take 10 times more notice of negative stimuli than positive ones (though I can’t be sure of this figure).

    The question is, like you say, how to manage this, and avoid letting it spoil our existence?  There are probably ways and means of handling it.  It probably doesn’t help that we continue to manufacture stressful situations through our civilised lifestyle, when these are not necessary.

    This question probably accounts for much of Buddhism.


    Simon Paynton

    I don’t know if you can pick this up where you are, you might have to register your e-mail address or some old crap that they’re asking you to do now.  Somewhere it talks about how engaging the frontal cortex (thinking logically) reduces anxiety.  Perhaps this is to do with how picking up factual information reduces ignorance of the unknown.

    BBC Radio 4 – “How to have a better brain”: ep2, “Relaxation”




    Do you think that human primates are/were any more alert to danger than other species of animals?

    We had a common ancestor: a cousin that survived because of that trait…my guess is that this organism might have looked fish-like before it had the amount of neurons necessary to make cognitive predictions. I would bet that the trait developed well before our ancestor was a land dwelling organism. Don’t forget…
    How long have humans existed on the Earth?
    Take away the semantic designator “species”, and humans are part of a living continuum, which started about four billion years ago. Humans share common ancestry with every organism to have ever lived on planet Earth. Humans are direct descendants from the “last universal ancestor”: by definition, this is the most recent organism from which all organisms now living on Earth have a common descent. It was not just some simple unicellular organism from which we descended. Similar to the first cell that replicates to eventually form a human baby, this simple four-billion-year old unicellular organism is the human organism in its least complex state: which we call “The Primary Organism”.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 5 months ago by  mike.


    … engaging the frontal cortex (thinking logically) reduces anxiety. Perhaps this is to do with how picking up factual information reduces ignorance of the unknown.

    I would agree with that. I would add that thinking illogically also reduces anxiety: blind faith serves the same purpose. Unfortunately, disinformation and maintaining ones ignorance of the unknown is a comfort to many.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 5 months ago by  mike.

    Simon Paynton

    I would add that thinking illogically also reduces anxiety: blind faith serves the same purpose.

    – this is a good point, which illustrates the difference in nature between our perceptions, and the real things we are perceiving.  i.e. these don’t necessarily match up very accurately.  I don’t think that thinking is entirely perception (observing): it is also construction: constructing conceptual ideas about how things are in reality.  In other words, who’s to say that these are anywhere near true.

    So, this conceptual model-building is a synthesised form of perception.

    Emotions can have a big influence on giving meaning to facts (emotional attribution of qualities because of the way that something is relevant to our goals).

    When people are feeling anxious, one of the things they want most is information.  So, if we can’t easily tell whether our knowledge is true or false, it’s not surprising that being correct or not appears to be irrelevant to the process of feeling better.  It makes sense that the act or process of seeking information makes someone feel more hopeful.  It also makes sense that people do tend to prefer certainty to not knowing.  We also tend to hold on to a point of view for all kinds of personal reasons, which could ultimately include deep emotional motivations that we might not be aware of.  Also, depending on the situation, the ego can favour blind self-interest rather than dispassionate truth-telling, unless this is what is required most obviously.


    Simon Paynton

    The question is, like you say, how to manage this, and avoid letting it spoil our existence? There are probably ways and means of handling it.

    – I feel that this list of steps is a good way:

    • slow down
    • face reality
    • practice acceptance that this is how things appear to be
    • practice gratitude for what’s good
    • make the most of things




    Amen to that Mr. Simon Paynton…I like your way of thinking….
    I think the ideas you put forth might be explained by the nature of consciousness…

    equating it with free will:
    Consciousness is expressed by our biology at different levels. Have you ever noticed that the internal conversation has a loud voice, and an unheard voice? The unheard voice is where we have no free will: we tell our heart to beat, or our lungs to expand and take a breath. We call it the autonomic nervous system. We don’t hear the thought that directs, “beat now”, but as we move up levels of thought or consciousness, the inner voice gets louder. It is expressed, at one level, as that tiny voice in the recesses of our mind we call a conscience: also without free will. But then the level of consciousness becomes louder and louder, until we are speaking out loud. When we speak out loud we are exercising undeniable free will.
    We can demonstrate exercising free will over deep levels of autonomic control mechanisms: by consciously taking control of breathing. Normally part of the autonomic nervous system; we may at any time say “I have control” and breath deep or shallow we wish. It is said deep meditator’s exercise a larger degree of control over lower levels of consciousness. Experiments have demonstrated their ability to lower heart rate on command or alter pain receptors.
    So some bodily functions exercise free will while others do not. When I say to my self “Ok its time to get up”… (I just slept through a rem bout: a state of consciousness we call “sleep”, entirely against my free will)…but then I think to myself, I’ll just stay in bed for one more minute; I can say that as a thought, just below the level of “out loud”, or I can actually say it out loud. Its not predetermined by my biology, it is a conscious decision to act and therefore free will. Then, for that minute I lay in bed, a thought that verges on free will flits through my brain. I hear a quiet voice reprimand: the brief inner voice says “lazy”. At a lower level, I acknowledge a pain in my back. I roll over, without free will. I then consciously will myself out of bed.
    …although all bodily functions, are at some level, expression of consciousness… some conclusions can be drawn from this proposition.
    1. In this regard a fly changing its direction is a level of consciousness, and a nematode moving toward the light is also a level, but just at a lower level.
    2. That allows you to think of all organisms, even bacteria, as conscious to some degree.
    3. And most importantly: If you were to list the levels (or maybe a better word would be “degrees”) of consciousness across species our lowest level would equal a bacterium’s highest level and therefore shows an evolutionary developmental correlation.
    Imagine the idea of a hierarchy of conscious expressions: some of our own free will, and some autonomic. This is the nature of free will and it is expressed by biological organisms as hierarchical states of consciousness.

    Conclusion…we have the ability, for our conscious mind, to influence our autonomic nervous system…take control through meditation?


    Simon Paynton

    @mike – “1. In this regard a fly changing its direction is a level of consciousness, and a nematode moving toward the light is also a level, but just at a lower level.
    2. That allows you to think of all organisms, even bacteria, as conscious to some degree.

    – I think it’s better to talk of “information processing” rather than consciousness.  A nemotode moving towards the light is like a pre-emotional system – this is similar to what we do with our complex emotional system: move towards things we like and away from things we don’t like.  This shows up how emotions are really another form of perception that carry information.  So I don’t think it flies to say that there is a hierarchy of consciousness or whatever – it’s more useful just to see them as qualitatively different.

    Probably there are all kinds of sources of information in the body, being carried around by a variety of sense forms (physical, emotional, intellectual), and only some of which are meant to make it into conscious awareness.

    There is a theory of thinking which involves “adaptive modules” in the brain, each with a separate fitness goal, each competing for awareness, when something happens that is relevant to one or more of them.  This makes sense because we are commonly aware of having “competing emotions” or “a multitude of thoughts” in response to some dramatic stimulus.  article here   (I haven’t read a lot of it.)  It ties into the idea that “we attend to what is relevant to our goals”.

    If meditation can change things about the body, for example, it can lower the inflammation response – I think this shows that the body is one big interconnected ecosystem, or factory, of processes and information.


    Simon Paynton

    There’s another thinking process going on:  the “default state” or “default activity”, which is the “internal monologue” whereby we just never stop thinking, and this is a process of constant monitoring or vigilance.  It seems like this comes from the prefrontal cortex, it’s a function of the ego, which makes perfect sense if you think about it.  But it can be troublesome or noisy.



    Its all conjecture but I think my “levels of consciousness” theory holds some merit philosophers are not picking up on. We, however, might argue about the definition of consciousness. I take a broader philosophical view:
    “the mental faculties as characterized by thought, feelings, and volition”
    “the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings.”

    Those taking the view that “consciousness” requires “self-awareness” limits the ability to about a half dozen animals on earth. If your belief is that consciousness is limited to the size of an organisms neuronal net then this hypothesis I put forth is understandably mute in your mind and you could stop listening here.

    I just typed that in, for the first time, and discovered Freud had a similar idea to mine, but he divided consciousness into three levels. I also saw the Barrett Model which states: The Seven Levels Model describes the evolutionary development of human consciousness. There are certainly others but they are all limiting and ignoring the fact that the majority of what goes on in our bodies is not authored by the most evolved parts of our brain.

    My model suggest countless levels that go back to the original quantum particles that we are evolved from…and comes directly from states of awareness I recognize in myself, and these states are observable in other organisms.

    Can you deny that our white blood cell are not aware of the bacteria they engulf? How about the heart knowing when to pump blood faster or the liver releasing enzymes in response to disease, or a bacteria competing for space on our tongue. Ask yourself “when does a sperm and egg become a conscious human? It is easier to think of a sperm as having some level of consciousness that multiples or rises to other levels as the fetus develops in nine months. Similarly our single celled common ancestor needed a few billion years to become a multiplicity of exponentially increasing levels of consciousness.

    It is too simple to state intuition or autonomic function are not a levels of consciousness. “Information processing” is too broad of a term. It implies a level but one that goes right across the spectrum of levels, and does not always require the higher brain to process information acquired from its environment.

    Getting out of the human body sees all manner of organisms making decisions that require qualitatively different responses to stimulus. If we limit ourselves to thinking of consciousness as just being states of awareness that can be processed by our highest cognitive function we fall into the “faith” trap of thinking that we are so special as to be above base cognitive functions: just because we do not recognize them in our waking brain… not to mention base decision making processes of less evolved organisms all of which share a common ancestor.

    “I think this shows that the body is one big interconnected ecosystem, or factory, of processes and information.” …and organisms…yes, yes, that are all, to some extent, conscious…


    Simon Paynton

    I’m not sure why you would want consciousness to have “levels”.  I can see that there are levels of conscious awareness – how well formed something is within the conscious mind.  I feel that the idea of processing and communicating information identifies the common aspect that is useful (to me).  Of course, each type, mode or system of this is different, and they deal with different kinds of information.

    I think that Freud’s model (id, ego, super-ego) is correct, in that things seem to be actually laid out that way, and to work as he stated.  He also seems to have discovered “ego defenses” which has been borne out by evidence and is now a normal idea.  These theories can only have come from direct observation.  So, despite his poor reputation, it seems like he wasn’t wasting his time in that office of his.


    Simon Paynton

    Rather than thinking about levels of consciousness, which I see as somewhat irrelevant, although I may be wrong, I think a more pressing question is “how can we think nice thoughts?”  We think the entire time, and it seems obvious to want this is to be as pleasant and productive an experience as possible, rather than a hell of compulsive self-recrimination, or obsession, or being blankly boxed in, or rigidly controlled – for example.  It also seems obvious that this cannot fail to have knock-on effects into the person’s external life.



    It is not that I want consciousness to have “levels”…there just are observable levels. It is a subjective observation, and it is useful only in that it allows us to view what we are not usually aware of, other than in our minds eye.

    “I can see that there are levels of conscious awareness”

    And I see that you agree too…

    so now look a little deeper. Try taking control of your breathing. By making a conscious decision to do so, you have just taken control of an function that is usually autonomic. You have brought a lower level to a higher level of awareness. If you successfully meditate you might be able to go even deeper and control your heart rate. If you go even deeper, you may be able to control certain disease processes…which is not so “out there” of an idea considering the effectiveness of placebos and positive thinking.

    “which I see as somewhat irrelevant”

    It would be relevant to those seeking greater awareness of self (mindfulness)

    “how can we think nice thoughts?”

    I hate to say it, because I have yet to try meditating… but meditation might answer this question also…look up “loving kindness meditation”



    A common problem with describing consciousness arises when people keep looking for an all-inclusive definition for it, especially those people intent on inventing metaphysical descriptions. Science is still working on it, variously. How much of it is empirically describable or predictable? Levels, modules, what have you, are useful for study and developing frameworks of understanding, but won’t provide the final answer unless perhaps explanations of consciousness employ more than one paradigm.

    Take two humans, one with all the usual faculties, and another without sight or hearing or another sense. Each will experience consciousness differently. Ditto for babies, kids growing up, people going senile, downhill skiers, concert pianists… there are no simple explanations. Forms of awareness and many-faceted consciousness have had a billion or two years to evolve and emerge. Are we even near the end of its evolution; do we need to include the effects of social networks, and AI in the future? Still, for each person, consciousness feels like a single unit of “me”, trying to survive, trying to grow and learn, looking for health, happiness, and family and/or tribal success.

    I think one of the easiest ways to imagine differing instances of ‘consciousness’ is to imagine what one’s pet dog may be experiencing, especially when the dog is in tune with you and what you are experiencing. Cats, not so much! But dogs evolved with us in our most culturally enriched, growth of group awareness/consciousness, in our most recent tens of thousands or so years. As for bacterial consciousness, that’s a bit too far back for me to connect with.

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