Thanks to the guiding hand of natural selection, humans have ended up with enormous brains that let us do all sorts of amazing things. Our incredible minds brought us to the moon, cured polio, made the internet, and gave us Comic Con. But our superpowers have come at a cost: anxiety, depression, and anger run rampant among the species. Unpleasant feelings like these have been bred into us by natural selection, argues Robert Wright, an author who writes about evolution and psychology.
The antidote, Wright argues in his new book, is meditation.
Thanks to natural selection, Wright says in Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, humans have evolved to have emotional reactions to all sorts of stimuli, from snakes to public speaking. In general, these reactions have helped keep us alive, but they don’t always lead to happiness, especially in the modern world. Anxiety can be a productive emotion if it keeps a caveman from being eaten by a bear, but it’s not so useful when it makes a modern man unable to make small talk at a cocktail party.
Humans have evolved to have emotional reactions to all sorts of stimuli, from snakes to public speaking. In general, these reactions have helped keep us alive, but they don’t always lead to happiness.
Approaching Buddhist philosophy from the perspective of an evolutionary psychologist, Wright argues that meditation can help us be more aware of the sometimes subtle emotional undertones of all human experience. That awareness allows us to choose which feelings we want to indulge — to choose to be happier and freer humans.
Wright spoke to Science of Us about his new book, waking up like Neo in The Matrix, and how meditation can help us stop procrastinating, spreading fake news, and waging wars.
One of the main ideas in your book is that the emotional responses that natural selection has programmed us to have are not conducive to happiness in the modern world. What are some of these unhelpful feelings that we tend to have?
To take a not-so-subtle feeling, there’s anxiety. There are two problems with anxiety. One is that natural selection didn’t intend it to always be an accurate guide to the world in the first place. If you know you’re walking along snake-infested terrain and you look down and for a second you might think you see a snake, even though usually it’s nothing. But natural selection wants us to err on the side of caution in those cases, so it fills us with fear that is usually misleading.
On top of that is the fact that in the modern environment, some of these feelings become even more misleading because natural selection didn’t design us for this environment. Public speaking is a perfect example. Talking to a bunch of people you’ve never met is terrifying for people partly because it was not part of the environment we were designed for. And people start having anxieties that are totally divorced from any likely scenario. There are people who imagine themselves projectile vomiting while talking, even though they’ve never done that. I think these anxieties that are a product of the kind of artificial environment we live in can be particularly problematic.
But some social anxiety is natural, right?
Social anxiety is natural because even in a hunter-gatherer society — the kind that we evolved in — social status matters for your reproductive prospects. People liking you matters. It influences your chances of surviving and reproducing. So it makes sense that we worry about, say, how our kid is being received socially or how we are doing socially. Social anxiety is natural and on balance it is productive by natural selection’s lights.
Social anxiety is natural because even in a hunter-gatherer society — the kind that we evolved in — social status matters for your reproductive prospects.
But remember, all natural selection cares about is getting genes into the next generation. And it’s not obvious that we should accept that as our mission in life anyway. Two things natural selection does not care about are whether we see the world clearly and whether we are happy. In fact, happiness is designed by natural selection to evaporate, precisely because that keeps us motivated. So we reach some goal — we get some food or sex, we get some more status — and it feels good for a while, and then the good feeling vanishes. That is by design, because it means we’ll get up and start working again. And that’s just evidence that natural selection doesn’t care about our happiness. If it cared about our happiness, it would just leave us in a state of eternal bliss.
In the book, you say it can be helpful to think of natural selection as a force like the evil robot overlords in The Matrix, which keep people living in a dream, blind to the true reality of their lives.
I think it’s a useful metaphor. It can be motivating to think that the process that created us had a kind of annoying disregard for our happiness and the clarity of our vision. Because if you’re going to embark on a serious meditative practice, that takes motivation. It’s not always easy to get up and sit on the cushion every morning. And so it may help to think, there’s an enemy here, in natural selection.
Natural selection doesn’t care about our happiness. If it cared about our happiness, it would just leave us in a state of eternal bliss.
I don’t want to overdramatise it, though. The main value of thinking in evolutionary terms is just to realise that scepticism toward your feelings makes sense when you realise what they were engineered to do. And scepticism toward your feelings is part of mindfulness meditation. You don’t accept them uncritically as guides. I don’t want to sound as if it’s a super-detached process of evaluation because in a way it involves getting very close to your feelings and not running away from unpleasant feelings. But as it happens, getting close to a feeling like anxiety or sadness can give you a kind of critical distance from it and even liberate you from it.
How does that work? How does meditation help us recognise and free ourselves from the emotional impulses we’ve evolved to have?
In terms of actual brain science, I don’t think we know the complete answer by any means. We do know that one thing that happens during mindfulness meditation is that the so-called default mode network in the brain gets quiet. That’s a network that’s distributed across various regions in the brain and is active when the mind is wandering.
Focus is natural in some circumstances: You have a deadline; you’re focused on your work. Someone’s chasing you; you’re focused on getting away. Otherwise, focus is not natural and your mind just kind of roams.
If you want to focus on your feelings, that’s going to take work. There isn’t the motivation there when you’re focusing on your deadline, focusing on your work. So the first thing you need to do is quiet the default mode network and that’s typically done in mindfulness meditation by focusing on the breathing. And that’s really hard, as any beginner meditator knows. It’s very hard to focus on your breathing because there’s no natural motivation to do that. But once you get good at that, you enter a kind of calm zone that allows you to kind of observe feelings that you might normally not notice and yet be reacting to. And the more you observe them, the less you are reacting to them. You slowly get into a completely different kind of relationship to your feelings that is more aware of them and less reactive in response to them.
So is meditation an unnatural activity?
Yes, very unnatural. The two natural things are to focus on something that you are highly motivated to focus on or, alternatively, let your mind wander. It’s just not natural to focus on your breath and then to focus on your feelings.
So yes, it’s unnatural. That’s part of what I mean when I say this is a rebellion against natural selection. And I think a rebellion is warranted both because natural selection never had our happiness or the clarity of our vision high on its agenda but also because we’ve gotten to a point in history where we really have to get meta-cognitive. We need to become more aware of the way of the subtle ways our cognition is pushed and pulled around by feelings.
We need to become more aware of the way of the subtle ways our cognition is pushed and pulled around by feelings.
Fake news is a perfect example. If you pay close attention, when you retweet something without actually inspecting it to be sure it’s accurate and valid — if you pay close attention, you’ll see that you’re driven by feelings. Because this news reflects unfavourably on someone you don’t like, like Donald Trump. Or, if you’re a Trump supporter, because it reflects favourably on Trump. If you look in general at the problem of political polarisation or the problem of sectarian conflict or national conflict, it all boils down to the psychology of tribalism. And I think we have to learn how to transcend that and meditation is a really good way to start getting some distance from it.
When people hear about this emotional distance that Buddhism can create, a common perception that the end goal of meditation is a kind of perfectly dispassionate, cold, and rational outlook. That’s inaccurate though, right?
I would say I wish I had hopes of getting so far down the meditative path that became an actual problem in the real world. At the level of meditation that I’m at, the way it works is that you become more aware of various feelings and that lets you decide which ones you try not to engage in. It doesn’t equally neutralise all feelings. I don’t try to reduce my love of my children or of my dogs. I don’t try to transcend the more wholesome feelings. So it’s not a practical problem.
At the level of meditation that I’m at, the way it works is that you become more aware of various feelings and that lets you decide which ones you try not to engage in.
When I emerge from a weeklong meditation retreat, which is the point at which I can most powerfully observe the effects of meditation, it’s true that there are various feelings that are playing a less powerful role in my life. But there is also a tremendously heightened appreciation of beauty and of other people and of sensory experience. At these retreats, they serve food I normally would not be enthusiastic about but it tastes way better than the food I would normally eat because I’m just immersing myself in the flavour. Some very pleasant feelings and some very wholesome feelings seem to naturally get heightened.
So it’s not about avoiding feelings altogether, but about simply being more aware of everything you’re feeling, and making better choices as a result. You talk in the book, for instance, about how this can help with something like procrastination.
If you pay attention to what’s keeping you from focusing on a particular piece of work, I contend it’s always feelings. There’s something else you could be doing and the prospect of doing it feels better. You’ve reached a point in your work that feels unpleasant or you don’t know what to do and you could be researching a smartphone you want to buy online, and you are being drawn by your feelings to that website or to Twitter or whatever. So many problems in life come down to feelings. Being aware of your feelings doesn’t compel you to ignore them but it gives you the option of becoming less reactive to them.