Old Brains Need Connection

What is the meaning of life? For ages, philosophers, poets, politicians, and romance novelists have mused over this very question. What is the meaning of all this? Why are we here?

I’m pretty sure questions like that are uniquely human. For most of the rest of the animal kingdom, the answer is pretty simple, assuming it were ever to be asked at all.

The meaning of life is to perpetuate the species.

Looking outside of the human world, almost every action can be traced back to that one motivation.

A whitetail buck deer doesn’t breathlessly run across four lanes of traffic chasing a doe because he knows his sacrifice will make him the subject of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

A family of beavers doesn’t tirelessly build a dam, impound water, then fabricate an intricate lodge with an underwater entryway so they can be featured in Aquatic Architecture magazine. (I don’t think such a publication exists, but if beavers ever learn to publish, I have no doubt that will be one of the first.)

No, the choices that animals make can almost always be justified in terms of species perpetuation. Survive and pass on your genes. That’s it. And the sheer diversity of colors, rituals, dances, construction projects, and occasionally encounters with humans, is simply a product of the forces of natural selection. All those adaptations served to help the animal find food, survive in the wild, or secure a mate. All in service of perpetuating the species.

And then we came along.

When you think about it, it’s a miracle that we survived the process of natural selection. We’re born helpless, completely dependent on parents. Immobile. It takes us almost a year to develop teeth so we can chew. And even after that, there’s a very small range of foods that we can properly digest. We burn in the sun, freeze in the snow and we’re highly prone to disease.

Individually, we are weak.

I have to believe that the other primates out on the savanna when we came along took one look at us and said “Oh, don’t worry about those guys. They’ll never make it.”

But make it we did. So it begs the question: how?

The key to our survival, our competitive advantage that holds true even to today, can be summed up in one word: Cooperation. We are one of the most cooperative, social species that the earth has ever seen. Yes, there are other social species out there. We all know about wolf packs and ant colonies. But the level of cooperation that we see in humans is unparalleled among the largest mammals. And I am convinced that’s what sets us apart from all of the species out there. And that, more than anything, has allowed us to become the dominant species on earth. For right or wrong.

Think about it. Why is solitary confinement such harsh punishment?

Why is it that, despite all the supposed “social” media platforms that we have at our disposal, we’re more anxious, more depressed, and lonelier than ever before? Because connecting digitally is no substitute for true human connection, even though our rational brain tells us they should be. And that feeling of malaise, that feeling of conflict between the mind and spirit when we’re so supposedly “connected” to each other, is simply a product of natural selection.

Remember, our competitive advantage as a species is our ability to connect to each other. We evolved that way and that hardwiring exists in the oldest, most primitive parts of our brains. The parts that evolved to keep us alive.

Thus, lack of connection feels like a threat to our survival.

The problem is that we often can’t articulate that feeling because the primitive brain parts that are triggered here don’t have the capacity for language. Language comes from the newer parts of our brains, the neocortex, the same parts that control rational thought.

In other words, our ability to describe what’s wrong originates from the same parts of our brains that exist often to override those primitive “fight or flight” systems and rationally explain that because we got 65 likes on our Facebook post we must really have a robust social network. We must really be “connected.”

Meanwhile, our old brain – the part that exists for the sole purpose of keeping us alive long enough to perpetuate the species – is screaming at us (wordlessly, of course) because it senses (correctly) that an army of connections contained inside a digital device can’t protect us from sabertooth tigers.

Or maybe it thinks social media is the sabertooth that will be the demise of our species. Either way, as much as I value rational thinking, creativity, language, and all the perks of a highly developed neocortex, I think our old brain is onto something here and maybe we ought to listen. It is, after all, what kept us around long enough to invent social media in the first place.

I don’t know what the meaning of life is for us humans. But I am certain that the reason we’re all alive today is because of our long history of cooperation. I also know that time spent in good company of other humans – in person – is time well spent. And I know that we as individuals only get so much time on this earth. And to me, that means one thing.

Spend it wisely.