All Biology Science

Biology of Spiritual Investment

A useful lens through which to explore the biological underpinning of Spiritual Investment is through the “Triune Brain.” Our primary interface with life is our brain and, like the rest of our anatomy, has evolved to its current state from our pre-human ancestors.

The “Triune Brain”, was first proposed in the 1960′s by the American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean as a way of describing three aspects of the human brain: the Reptilian Complex, the Paleomammalian Complex and the Neomammalian Complex.

Our fear of uncertainty stems from our ancient, reptilian complex– the amygdala – which is responsible for compulsiveness and has been called our “internal hypochondriac.” This part of the brain is responsible for our automatic fight or flight responses to dangerous situations. Unlike the dangers our ancestors faced us, investments cannot eat us. However, protecting our overall wealth helps secure other needs we have – from food and shelter to indulgences such as travel.

At the other extreme, the prefrontal lobes of the neocortex – shared by primates but most developed in humans – is responsible for abstract “executive functions” such as planning, goals, and actions. In between, is the limbic system that controls our emotions – which we share with all mammals, including our pet dogs and cats.

All behaviors and thoughts arise in the brain as the result of anatomical, neurochemical, and electrical processes. The feeling of pleasure is regulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Produced in the reptilian structures of our animal brains, it helps regulate the brain’s appetite for rewards and its sense of how well rewards meet expectations. In uncertain situations, rewards are twofold: the thrill of the hunt and the pleasure of the feast. Whether a sexual conquest, a risky business deal, or an addictive drug – a certain pleasure is distinguished in our brains from an uncertain one.

Using scanning devices that measure the brain’s activity, scientists can glimpse how the different parts of our brain, ancient and modern, collaborate and compete when we make decisions. Decision making involving both systems and much of the traffic between the primitive and modern parts of our brains is devoted to this conscious calculation of risks and rewards.

Difficult situations – such as those with uncertain outcomes or trade-offs – can bring about stress especially when our bodies are not trained through mindfullness practices. Stress leads to our primal brain taking and flooding our bodies with adrenaline. Although this excitement helps us make faster decisions, it destroys our body and we pay less attention to words and ideas.

Pondering a decision involves less of our compulsive reptilian brain but is still prone to the emotional limbic system. The higher the uncertainty, the less logic we can apply and the more our behavior is driven by emotion. These emotions can be positive, such as excitement, or negative, such as anxiety, but it sometimes difficult to tell them apart as stress takes over. Whether a situation is positive or negative, we are most stressed and least logical when uncertainty is highest. For example, when receiving shocks, we are less stressed with a 70% chance of receiving a shock than with a 50% chance.

Stress encourages adrenaline and emotions such as anger, which together can be particularly dangerous. “Getting angry is like taking a small dose of slow-acting poison,” says Redford Williams, professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. Williams has spent over 20 years studying the impact of the mind and emotions on health. His conclusion: Anger leads to higher blood pressure, arterial damage and the stimulation of cholesterol-filled fat cells to empty into the bloodstream.

Presence enables us to zoom out and willingly change our perspective. By reframing our perceptions to empathy and compassion, for example, we can flood our bodies with oxytocin instead.

Our approach to dealing with uncertainty is learned through experiences and shapes our personality.

What do you think?


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