I've found an absolutely fantastic resource for anyone interested in the scientific bases behind Buddhism that I just have to share. Rick Hanson and Rick Mendius give a lecture on "The Neurology of Awakening" that is available for download (audio) here. They give some amazing information about the brain--it's complexity, it's evolution--as well as how it relates to suffering, self-concept, etc.
It's reaffirmed my original hypothesis--that we are not as in control of our brains as we think, that our brain has many left over "programs" from earlier in our evolutionary history that hold us back, and that the philosophy of Buddhism (or any very strict system of introspection) can help us to overcome and transcend those vestigial instincts.
Let's take perspective, for instance. A lot of things about our perspective make sense: our eyes evolved to see in the tiny spectrum of light we call "visible" because it gives us the greatest benefit when moving about and manipulating our world--a solid state world that is, at the atomic level, mostly just empty space. But we didn't evolve to see radio waves, because then we'd be bumping in to trees and rocks as the light waves pass through that space. No, visible light provides the best information for navigation (give or take a few wavelengths--I'm lookin' at you, bees and snakes!), so it makes sense that that's what we see; it's how we build our point of view.
But some things that shape our perspective of the world don't make sense anymore. For instance, our natural tendency to view the world in a sharp divide of "us" and "them" makes sense in a social species that must compete for resources in a pack vs pack (or, troop vs troop, as I discovered primate groups are called) environment. But in today's modern age of interconnectivity, this tendency is vestigial. Actually, I take that back; wisdom teeth are vestigial. The "us vs them" mentality is downright destructive. And while the danger might not be as prevalent as it was during the Cold War, this mentality still holds the potential to actually self-destruct our very species.
While I'm on the doom and gloom, I guess I should also mention our difficulty in making long-term plans. For our ancestors, "long-term" was "next season". The forager and hunter gatherer societies in which our modern brains evolved could not possibly have damaged their environment so much that not planning years in advance would be a detriment to their offspring surviving--the driving factor behind natural selection. But even with our lifespans quadruple that of our ancestors and our influence now able to shape the face of the planet, we still have enough problems planning for retirement; much less thinking about the consequences of our actions generations from now. What's more, we don't really care. It takes a conscious effort and a great deal of empathy to care what happens to future generations--again, that "us" and "them" thing.
But enough of the doomsaying--what about our day to day living? Everything, from our craving of fatty, sugary foods, to our general avoidance of change, comes from our ancestor's needs, not ours.
What does this mean for us? It means that if you've had your wisdom teeth pulled and your appendix removed, you're only halfway there.
12 hours ago