According to Darwinism, humans evolved from apes. Even after years of research, there is still no way to pinpoint the exact moment apes evolved into humans. Instead, it is likely that a series of micro-factors like environment, diet, and genetic mutation led to the development of our species. What was it that set us on a trajectory away from apes? Our minds.
Human beings don’t have the largest brains on Earth. In fact, we don’t even have the largest brain-to-body ratio. What makes the human brain so special is its highly evolved prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for problem solving, language, personality expression, and of course, self awareness. This highly developed ability to orient and consider oneself in relation to the past, current, and future world is arguably what makes us the most human. Because we have such well-developed frontal lobes, we have the capacity to be aware of our thoughts.
Many scientists believe that the prefrontal cortex began to evolve due to a gene mutation that gave us weaker jaws. At first, this may sound like a bad thing, but it’s really one of the best things that could have happened to us as a species. As we became more self aware with this bigger brain, humans began to realize that by cooking food, we could get way more nutritional value from the calories we consumed (not to mention it tasted way better!) Since the brain is an energy eating machine, cooking food to more condensed, less fibrous meals allowed us to get way more nutrition than apes. As this fueled our brains to grow, more complex modes of thought evolved.
Though we didn’t know it all those years ago, thinking introspectively about ourselves was actually allowing our brains to grow even larger. For example, this could have started with simple caveman thinking. “I am strong caveman, and can defend my family. I am stronger with tree branch when defending my family.” To an ancient Egyptian like Cleopatra thinking “I will marry Julius Caesar not because I love him, but because it is the right strategic move to protect Egypt from Rome.” Overtime, we have become better and better at considering ourselves, our position, and how to strategically accomplish our goals. Cleopatra is a great example of the modern human being’s ability to override the emotional parts of our brains with logical thinking.
Science has shown us that by focusing our awareness on different things, our brain physically changes. This is what scientists today call neuroplasticity. Cleopatra, along with countless other people have chosen year after year to move their attention away from the fear/emotional response occurring in the amygdala, and to the frontal lobe. By doing this, we have strengthened the parts of our brains that are more logical and self aware, while shrinking the more primitive areas of the brain.
What’s really cool is that regular mindfulness practice and meditation actually reduces the size of the amygdala (the fear center of the brain), and strengthens the connections within the prefrontal lobe. This trains your brain to think more calmly, clearly, and logically. By strengthening these neural pathways, we are literally changing our genes. Next time you’re meditating, you can feel good about building a better brain for today and tomorrow.