Science and Environment

We shallow beings

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia -

When we mention things that seem merely instinctive or do not require much thought, we usually refer to them as “shallow” (“mababaw”) while when we talk about things that force us to go beyond our instinctive reactions, we call them “deep” (“malalim”). I realized that if we were conscious of our brain anatomy when we came up with those expressions, then we would have had it the other way around.

We human beings have brains that mainly grew from structures now buried deep inside our brains. We share these structures in various configurations, with other animals. I say “grew” because the human brain evolved from brain structures already present in other animals before life gave rise to mammals like us. Thus, in terms of the brain evolving, there are three layers, from oldest to newest: reptilian, limbic and neocortex. Human brains have ALL three layers, going from center (oldest) to outer (newest) layers.

We always refer to corrupt politicians as “buwaya” which is an animal that belongs to a class called “Reptilia.” I don’t think that is fair to reptiles. The reptilian brain started first as fish brains about 500 million years ago then to amphibian brains and then reached its “peak” with reptiles about 250 million years ago. The reptilian brain is responsible for your basic existence as it controls your breathing, swallowing, temperature, balance. It is very good in dealing with basic survival but not equipped to feel a range of emotions and think (analyze, predict, plan, reflect). Reptiles have that kind of brain because those are the only structures they need to survive. A reptilian brain on a reptile is wonderfully suited but on a human being in politics, it is severely inadequate and as we have always known, dangerous.

The limbic layer is a layer that first appeared in small mammals about 150 million years ago and found its way to human brains. It is capable of recording memories and reflecting on them, making us capable of a gamut of emotions. It is also where our impulse behavior comes from — something that teenagers’ brains have been seen to make a career out of. We often think that having emotions is what makes us human but this is something we share with other mammals, in probably differing ranges.

It is the outermost layer, the neocortex, that really defines our humanness. It was a layer that began to grow substantially in primates about three million years ago to our genus, Homo and to our species Homo sapiens sapiens that appeared on Earth 200,000 years ago. “Sapiens” is written twice — we do not only know but rather we know that we know. That is what the neocortex did to what otherwise would have just been a two-layered brain — it enabled us to reason, develop language, engage in abstract reasoning and what is more, we test each other on these aspects and compete in a world based on these abilities! That is certainly evidence that “we know that we know.”

Now that you know your brain and how it got to become what it is, you now know that deep down your brain, you are in a sense, a mouse, a croc, a bee, a hippo, a dog, a lion or an ant. You and all other animals have common structures deep inside your brains.  Knowing this, you now realize that literally digging deep in your brain is not the same as being philosophically deep because the reptilian and limbic layers cannot do philosophy. The outermost layer, the neocortex, however, capable of high reason and planning, poetry, science and song, is really the most shallow layer. So there, I hope I confused you enough because that was my aim for this column. Go forth then and be shallow.

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com.

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