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C L INIC A L GUIDE

The Evolution of the


Brain in Humans:
What Therapists Need
to Know

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The Evolution of the Brain in Humans:


What Therapists Need to Know
By L o u i s C o z o l i n o

natomically, modern humans evolved from our chimplike ancestors around 100,000 years ago, although it
took another 50,000 years for our brains and culture
to evolve sufficiently to make us capable of language, planning, and creativity. But this extended, complex history has
a downside: the more recently emergent aspects of our
brainswhich give us astonishing powers of thought, logic,
imagination, empathy, and moralitymust share skull space
with the ancient brain equipment that weve inherited from
our mammalian and reptilian forebears over the past several
million years. So even today, one of the most basic human
challenges is integrating and coordinating the complex and
highly specialized systems that comprise our brains.
The neocortex, for examplethe part of the brain that
organizes our powers of conscious thought, imagination, and
empathymust coexist and cooperate with primitive survival
networks conserved by natural selection through hundreds
of thousands of generations. This means that beneath our
newer equipment, capable of composing sonnets and developing computers, are structures driven by primitive instincts,
unconscious impulses, and primordial fears. Within our
skulls, the reptilian, ancient mammalian, and modern human
brains attempt to coexist and cooperate, at least enough to get
us through the day.
The American physician and neuroscientist Paul MacLean
first discussed this structure, which he called the triune
brain. The basis of his theory is that the contemporary
human brain resembles a site inhabited by successive civilizations, and embodies a living record of our deep evolutionary
history. At its core is the reptilian brain, responsible for arousal, homeostasis, and reproduction. The paleomammalian
(old-mammal) brain, involved with learning, memory, and
emotion, surrounds it. The neomammalian (new-mammal)
brain, required for conscious thought and self-awareness,
sits atop the other two. These levels roughly conform to the
common distinction of brainstem, limbic system, and cortex.
Though MacLeans theory has many significant limitations,
it can both assist us to better understand some of the most
distinctive features of human experience and give us fresh
insight into how psychotherapy influences brain function.
MacLean suggested that our three brains dont necessarily work well together because each of these brains processes information in a distinctive manner and has a separate

agenda. The functions of the reptilian brain, which drive our


instincts and behaviorsfear, rage, eating, matingretain a
good deal of executive control over our behavior, while only
a small region of the cortex is capable of conscious awareness
and articulating its strategies. This means that multiple levels
of the brain often vie for dominance simultaneously and in
opposition to each other, without our conscious awareness
an idea that parallels Sigmund Freuds conception of the
relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds.
That so much neural processing occurs outside of conscious awareness and that executive decisions at multiple levels can oppose one another lays the groundwork for considerable inner conflict. To these evolutionary layers are added the
complexities of two cerebral hemispheres, a variety of vertical networks integrating the layers of the brain, and the variations of brain organization resulting from gender, vagaries
in development, and influences of the cultural environment.
In an image suggested by the British cultural philosopher
and management consultant Charles Hampden-Turner, the
human brain is an anachronistic menagerie, which confronts
the psychotherapist with the challenge of treating a human,
a horse, and a crocodile attempting to inhabit the same body.

The Social Brain

The potential for miscommunication among the networks of


our brains might not be so bad if we lived in isolation, but
our brains are social organs, which require sustained connection with other brains. At birth, were totally dependent on
our caretakers for our survival. If an average reptile is born
knowing how to perform the basic tasks of survivalgetting
food, fighting, and matingwere born dumb, so to speak. Our
saving grace is that as babies we know how to attach to our
parents and stimulate them to attach to us.
For human babies, survival doesnt depend on how fast
they can run, climb a tree, or tell the difference between
edible and poisonous mushrooms: it depends on their abilities to detect the needs and intentions of those around them.
Throughout the millennia that we Homo sapiens have inhabited the earth, if weve been successful in our early relationships, we have food, shelter, protection, and a decent shot at
eventually producing children of our own.
Our prolonged dependency allows for an increasing
amount of brain development to occur after birth, mak-

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ing each human brain an experiment of naturea unique


blending of genetics and experience. The parents are the primary environment to which a babys brain adapts, and their
unconscious minds are a childs first reality. Their nonverbal
communications and patterns of responding to our needs
when were babies shape not only our perceptions of ourselves and the world, but also the architecture of our brains.
Because the first few years of life are a period of exuberant
brain development, early experiences have a disproportionate
impact on the shaping of our neural systems, with lifelong
consequences.
Our brains are inescapably social, their structure and
function deeply embedded in a group of other brainsthe
family, the tribe, the society. Because weve evolved in this
context, weve individually developed the ability to link with
other brains, attuning with each other, regulating each others
emotional systems, helping to grow each others neural networks. Similarly, the ability to link with, attune to, and help
build new neural connections in the brains of clients is at the
heart of psychotherapy. This is why therapists are in a position to counterbalance some of natural selections less stellar
choices.

The Primacy of Early Learning

While being embedded in groups has been necessary for our


survival and development as human beings, it can create
friction and dysfunction. What makes the combination of a
complex brain and human interdependency such a problem?
From birth, the primitive regions of our brains are deeply
affected by our social and emotional experiences, while our
more sophisticated brains still havent come online. As a
result, a great deal of important learning takes place while
our primitive brains are in control. For most of us, these
learned reactions and feelings remain forever inaccessible
to conscious memory or modification. We mature into selfawareness years later, having been programmed by early
experience with assumptions that we accept as truth.
The powerful influence that early experience exerts over
our brains can be both good and bad news. The good news is
that the individual brain is well-suited to survive in whatever
social environment into which its born. Parents, family, and
culture shape each of our brains for maximum adaptation to
our social niche. In good times, and with good-enough parents, this early brain-building will serve us well in adulthood.
The bad news comes when the surrounding factors arent
so favorable, as when parental psychopathology shapes the
babys brain in ways that, though they optimize childhood
survival, prove to be maladaptive later in life. The childs
brain is shaped with its most primitive survival mechanisms
loosely speaking, its unconscious horse and crocodile
mechanismsoperating at full tilt to react to abuse, for
example, with dissociation and other defenses, and insufficiently modulated by the regulating, late-developing cortex.
We see this in abused and neglected children, who often
enter adolescence and adulthood without a clear picture of

their early experiences, but with a variety of symptoms, such


as explosive anger, eating disorders, or drug and alcohol
problems. They have identity disturbances and a poor selfimage, exacerbated by angry feelings and negative behaviors.
Like the brains of veterans with PTSD, the brains of these
children have been shaped to survive combat, but are illequipped to negotiate the peace.

The Speed of Unconscious Processing

To survive, animals have to be tough or fast. The tortoise


and the hare are good examples of these different, equally
viable, survival strategies. Our cortex distinguishes our brains
from those of both hares and tortoises, but further inside,
all three brains are pretty similar. Our cortex allows us far
greater response flexibility than our more primitive cousins
have: we can think things through, rather than respond
instinctively. But, thinking through options takes time, and a
speedy, unthinking reflex is sometimes more adaptive, more
likely to save us from danger, than the ability to consider all
the options. In the interest of survival, weve retained many
primitive responses and automatic subcortical processes.
For example, it takes approximately 500 to 600 milliseconds for our cerebral cortex to process an experience and
register it in conscious awareness. By contrast, the amygdala,
the core of our fear and attachment circuitry, located in the
old-mammalian brain, can react to a potential threat in less
than 100 milliseconds. This means that by the time weve
become consciously aware of an experience, its already
been processed and reprocessed in the brains more primitive
regions, activating memories and triggering neural patterns
generated by past learning. When we finally realize theres a
need to take action of some kind, we think were making a
conscious choice, but most likely, the choice has already been
made for us by our more primitive brain centers. The brain
somehow creates the illusion that were living in the present
moment and are acting with free will based on conscious
deliberation, but extensive evidence shows that this isnt the
case. So, when we think were directly experiencing whats
going on around us, our conscious awareness is primarily the
result of whats already occurred within our brainsfully 90
percent of the input to the cerebral cortex comes from internal neural processing.
The predominance of unconscious processing makes
sense for situations that require rapid appraisal and reflexive
action based on past learning; behaving as if we still had the
brains of an ancient gazelle or lizard keeps us alive in situations requiring immediate fight or flight to avoid imminent
physical danger. But for humans living in the 21st century,
this arrangement isnt always socially or personally convenient, to say the least. Because this unconscious processing
is both automatic and beyond our awareness, it can create
distortions and ruts in our thinkinglimitations that keep us
frightened, withdrawn, and confused without our knowing
why. Think of the veteran who ducks when he hears a car
backfire, even years after combat, or runs for cover when a

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news helicopter flies overhead. This behavior worked well for


the fearful beast scanning the ancient savannah, but it produces misery for the human trying to adapt to ordinary life
in a modern, urban environment.
Attachment schemasimplicit emotional memories
derived from the summation of our early experiences with
caretakers, laid down in the old brain regions that formed
before the cortex came fully onlineare another example of
the brains unconscious processing structure, . These schemas
become automatic predictions of outcomes that shape our
conscious experience of others by activating lightening-fast
systems of emotional evaluation, which lead us to seek or
avoid proximity. A woman who experienced early abandonment may be perfectly capable of starting new relationships
as an adult. At a certain point, however, intimacy may trigger
an attachment schema that leads her to become frightened
and flee from a potentially healthy relationship. The impulse
to run, driven by primitive brain circuitry, is overpowering and inescapable. The true reasons for her decision to
break things off, stored in her brain within implicit networks
dedicated to fear regulation, remain for her aspects of what
British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas accurately described
as the unthought known.
The illusions constructed by our brains of living in the
present moment and being in control of our behaviors have
their own survival advantages, however, the foremost being
the ability to be assertive and doubt-free in the face of a
complex and confusing world. At the same time, this adaptive
capacity to tap down our own, probably realistic, self-doubts
has a serious drawback: we can become so confident in our
personal perspectives and beliefs that were unable to consider alternatives to them. The woman described above, for
example, may come up with a list of irrelevant, yet personally persuasive, reasons for fleeing the relationship, because
she has no access to the true source of her fearhidden,
so to speak, in the more primitive regionsand isnt able to
open up to her partners thoughts and feelings about their
life together.
Its an odd paradox of therapy that we can help our clients
become more consciously clear-sighted about themselves by
helping them become aware of the unconscious, irrational
impulses arising from the older regions of the brain. Thats
why openness to questioning ones assumptionsparticularly
when theyre incorrect and self-defeatingis a key aspect
of psychological mindedness and a predictor of a positive
outcome in psychotherapy. We encourage clients to talk
about their impulses with the hope that doing so will integrate the calmer, more reasonable, inhibitory cortical input
of their brains with the regions organizing primitive urges.
Psychotherapy takes a skeptical perspective when it comes
to the reasoned output of our brains, understanding that
our conscious thoughts, emotions, and self-image are based
largely on reactions and feelings totally outside of our awareness and often out of sync with our actual circumstances.

The Bias toward Anxiety and Fear

As weve seen, human survival, like that of all animals, is


based on rapid and accurate decisions to approach whats
safe and avoid whats dangerous. Therefore, we maintain
some common anxietiesfear of spiders, snakes, open spaces, and heightswhich appear to be hard-wired and linked
to the survival requirements of our tree-dwelling ancestors.
Because vigilance and rapid approach-avoidance reactions
are central mechanisms of survival, cognitive therapist Aaron
Beck postulated that evolution favors an anxious gene: natural selection probably weeded out our past relations who were
too laid back.
The core of the neural circuitry involved in fear and anxiety is the amygdala, a structure we share with our ancestors
who only had to navigate their physical environments and
basic social interactions. Unfortunately, these primitive fear
circuits deep inside our brains still have a lot of power and
are unable to tell the difference between real and imagined
danger. We now have the capacity to experience anxiety
associated with just about anythingfrom public speaking,
to existential despair, to the thought of an asteroid striking
the earth.
The amygdala is central not just to the immediacy of fear,
but to the memory of fear. The reason we easily forget someones name but have difficulty forgetting a traumatic experience is that the hippocampus and the amygdala have different
neuroplastic properties. The amygdala, which controls our
unconscious memory, retains a constant dendritic profile,
which means that the wiring established by stressful situations
persists unchanged. The role of the amygdala is to remember
threats and apply the lessons contained in these memories
to future circumstances, while generalizing fearful experiences to as many situations as possible. Thats why a panic
attack outside the home can lead to agoraphobia, or getting
scratched by a cat can result in a fear of all furry animals.
In contrast, the hippocampus is like an Etch A Sketch,
ready to be turned over repeatedly, shaken, and influenced
by experience after experience. Its constantly remodeled in
response to new details, and will easily learn to differentiate
memories of one furry animal from another.
The fear and anxiety resident in older parts of our brains
can make us cognitively and emotionally rigid. We become
afraid of taking risks and learning new things, resulting in
what psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich described as a tendency
for those who become sick to remain sick. Once our brains
have been shaped by fear to perceive, think, and act in specific
ways, we tend to remain in cognitive and emotional ruts that
are reinforced by what we perceive as our continuing survival
needs. In other words, an agoraphobic person functions as if
the following were true: I havent set foot outside my house
in 10 years because of my agoraphobia. Im still alive, which
must be because I havent set foot outside my house in 10
years. The minds internal logic is self-perpetuating, making
it difficult for us to find answers that differ from the ones we
already know. Our chance of changing in positive ways rests

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on getting input from others, because our brains are shaped


by others from birth and continue to be so, but our fear
causes us to mistrust people and their differing perceptions.
Caring relationships arent easily entered into, nor is it
easy for us to benefit from them. Openness and trust are fragile states, even with the people we love most. The therapists
training and the therapeutic context are designed to enhance
support and trust, and to provide consistent emotional availability. Within the consulting room, therapists attempt to be
amygdala whisperers: we work to activate networks of new
learning in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Warmth,
empathic caring, and positive regard create a state of mind
that enhances neuroplastic processes and increases the likelihood of positive change.

The Suppression of Language


under Stress

Animals surprised by a loud noise or a sound suggesting danger freeze in their tracks, become silent, and scan the environment for the threat. We share both the startle and freeze
responses with our more primitive cousins. The logic of these
responses is clear: being still and silent make us less likely to
be seen or heard, and prepares us to respond to a potential
threat. Research suggests that during these states of high
arousal, the area of our brain responsible for the production
of speech (Brocas area) becomes inhibited. Thus, the conservation of the ancient reptilian and old-mammalian startleand-freeze responses in the new-mammalian brain may result
in diminished capacity for language in certain situations.
This is a high price for a human to pay for being afraid.
Putting our feelings into words and constructing narratives
of our experiences contribute invaluably to emotional regulation, the integration of neural networks of emotion and
cognition, and the experience of a coherent sense of self.
This artifact of evolution, which silences people during times
of danger or attack, is especially problematic in situations
of abuse, or when people have endured the unspeakable
horrors of torture, war, or the extermination of friends and
family.
An additional problem connected to this primitive, builtin instinct to freeze and go silent results from the fact that
Brocas area contributes to networks of prediction and anticipation. Its inhibition during times of danger or attack thus
affects peoples ability to learn from the experiencewhich
may be a reason why traumatized individuals seem to have
more than their share of subsequent accidents, bad relationships, and misfortune. The compounded loss of words and
predictive abilities enhances the long-term impact of the
trauma by increasing the probability of dissociation and
revictimization.

Wired for Projection and Self-Deception

Human brains possess neural circuits that become activated


as we observe and interact with those around us. Neurons
called mirror neurons in the premotor regions of our frontal

lobes (first discovered in macaque monkeys) fire when we


observe someone engaging in a specific behavior, such as
saying a word or grasping an object. Some mirror neurons
are so specific that they fire only when an object is grasped at
certain angles by particular fingers; these neurons fire when
we see the action performed by someone else and fire again
when we perform the action ourselves. Mirror neurons link
observations and actions, allowing us to (a) learn from others
by watching them, (b) anticipate and predict others actions,
and (c) activate emotional states supportive of emotional
resonance and empathy. All three of these functions support
group cohesion and the spread of culture.
Human brains also possess neural circuits that analyze
the actions and gestures of others, allowing us to develop a
theory of mindwhat others know, what their motivations
may be, and what they might do next. The existence of these
neural systems reflects the fact that millions of years of natural selection have been refining our brains ability to read the
emotions, thoughts, and intentions of others for the purposes
of group coordination and defense.
Were quick to think we know others because mind reading is instantaneous and obligatory. In essence, its a reflex of
the social brain to attend to the mote in our brothers eye, and
not to the beam in our own. While Freud saw these projective processes as defensive, they may be a natural byproduct
of how our brains have evolved to process information.
Unfortunately, evolution hasnt seen fit to invest much neural
circuitry into self-awareness. Projection is automatic and lessens anxiety, while self-awareness requires effort and generates
anxiety. Which do you think is going to be the norm?
Based on our neural architecture and everyday human
behavior, self-awareness and personal insight dont appear to
have exerted a strong pressure on natural selection. In fact,
possibly it was just the reverse: self-awareness may have been
selected against, because it can lead to hesitation, self-doubt,
and demoralization. Its commonly suggested that depression
results from seeing reality too clearly. Repression, denial, and
humor grease the social wheels and lead us to put a positive
spin on the behavior of those around us. Defenses help us
regulate our internal state by decreasing anxiety and shame.
This may be why humans have so few networks dedicated
to self-insight and so many ways of distorting reality in their
favor. Freuds defense mechanisms and the attribution biases
of social psychology document many of these distortions.
Self-deception increases the likelihood of successfully
deceiving others. If we believe our own confabulations, were
less likely to give away our real thoughts and intentions via
nonverbal signs and behaviors. The best con-men, from
grifters to televangelists, can be so persuasive that their victims often refuse to believe theyve been cheated, even after
being shown incontrovertible evidence that they have been.
Because we have these built-in information-processing biases,
the most naive observer can see things about us that we may
be blind to ourselves. In psychotherapy, we provide our clients
not only with interpretations, clarifications, and reflections,

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but also with an alternative perspective (our own), which they


can utilize to help discover themselves.

Why Does Neuroscience Matter for


Psychotherapy?

practice in West Los Angeles. Hes the author of The


Neuroscience of Psychotherapy; The Making of a
Therapist; The Neuroscience of Human Relationships;
and The Healthy Aging Brain, all from W. W. Norton.

Knowing about neuroscience is invaluable for therapists, not


because it offers specific new techniques or clinical theories,
but because it provides a deeper understanding of the biological power of the talking cure. As a social organ, the
brain has evolved to be affected and changed by other brains,
and psychotherapy relies upon the power of relationships to
trigger the neuroplastic processes necessary for learning and
growth. In effect, psychotherapists are pragmatic neuroscientists, who alter the functioning and structures of clients
brains, whether or not those brains are aware of these underlying biological processes.
Information about the brain and how it evolved helps us
communicate with clients about their problems in an objective and non-shaming manner. Adding a neuroscientific
perspective to our clinical thinking lets us talk with clients
about the shortcomings of our brains, instead of the problems
with theirs. Learning about whats happening in their brains
and how these billions of neural events have shaped their
emotional lives and behavior is more likely to inspire interest and curiosity in clients than defensiveness and feelings of
inadequacy. Identifying inherent problems in how the brain
processes information and developing methods to circumvent
or correct them is a solid foundation upon which to base a
therapeutic alliance.
Some therapists bristle at the integration of neuroscience
and psychotherapy, calling it irrelevant or reductionistic. If
you have a model of therapy that works, they seem to be saying, why bother with the brain? Would Carl Rogers or Heinz
Kohut have been better therapists if theyd been trained as
neuroscientists? Probably not. But its hard to grasp how the
brain could be irrelevant to changing the mind.
We carry within our skulls the entire history of the brains
evolution, from its primitive origins in the fishes, up through
the early and later mammals, to the unimaginably complex
organ of todays Homo sapiens. And evolution hasnt stopped!
The human brain will probably continue to grow in size
and capacities, barring the potential catastrophes that this
amazing organ can create for the world and itself, on a scale
inconceivable to our ancestors even a few hundred years ago.
The internal dynamics of any particular individual brain
and the social dynamics of the entire human race are increasingly intertwined. Perhaps for the first time in history, we can
begin to get some sense of the vast, interconnected web that
joins every human brain on earth to every other. This is a
cause for awe and skepticismawe at the power and potential of our collective cerebral tapestry, skepticism about what
we imagine we know. After all, were still only animals.
Louis Cozolino is a professor of psychology at Pepperdine
University and maintains a clinical and consulting
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