Right by Definition
Can the factors that make us human be harnessed to improve our lives and possibly the chances of the survival of our species? These include our survival mechanisms of self-efficacy and beliefs which are based on our biology and evolution.
Humans find themselves in a unique evolutionary circumstance. What has served Homo sapiens in its rapid evolution to dominance may be putting it at risk of individual and collective decline. Humans have built an increasingly complex environment; an environment to which it is ill-suited.
To cope in this complex environment, humans simplify, filtering out the unnecessary and giving up “self-efficacy.” Disruption to this simplification is thus a challenge to survival, whether real or perceived.
Simplifying, by aligning with a leader or a group and outsourcing the burden of decision making is a mechanism for safety and survival. The risk however is the loss of self-efficacy and the weakening of the life force.
What follows is my exploration of the make-up of humans and how our survival mechanisms affect our life-force.
Safety in Numbers
My 80-year old mother lives on her own in South Africa. All three of her children live in Australasia. While previously visits to and fro occurred at least annually, this presently cannot happen. Her situation could be dire. There is the physical danger of living in a country with a high crime rate. There is the greater concern of lack of family connection, loneliness and loss of meaning. However, my mother is vibrant, healthy and engaged with life. She always has a long list of things to do that she can never find time for. So much for retirement.
So, how has she done this? She has chosen safety, in the guise of a dedicated religious group. She has more friends around the world, than I have clients in my medical practice. She has meaning and purpose. Whenever she has to weigh up alternatives, she defaults to what the group believes. During the pandemic my mother has been stoic. She has found her way using new technologies, connecting with her group and her family.
My mother believes she is right. There is no argument; there is no discussion. She is right — by definition.
To my parents’ credit enough discussion was allowed at home, for all three children to be able to make their own decisions while remaining part of the family. A bridge that has remained in place.
However, any conversation is limited to safe topics, usually gardening and how much it has rained. Scientific, philosophical and even historical discussion cannot be had. My mother is right by definition.
When I discussed with her the benefits of consuming more than the occasional egg while recovering from a serious injury, she declined on the basis of the group. It took a good year of wearing a neck brace screwed into her skull, followed by extensive rehabilitation for her injuries to heal. While she wouldn’t eat the eggs that would provide critical nutrients for healing, the knowledge of the prayers of her community and her strength of purpose, pulled my mother through. She recovered to live on her own, in her own home rather than in a nursing facility. No mean feat.
The Mysteries of Being Human
I was initially interested in medicine because I wanted to know stuff. How does a bone heal? How do we poo? This morphed into: how does the brain work; what is consciousness?
Part of me regrets not going into research when this was offered. However, I now consider that the greatest insights into humanity have been gained in clinical practice.
The excitement of working out what is going on in the biology behind a patient’s symptoms is dwarfed by the experience of the human life-force. This aspect of humanity is not easily explained.
Is this life-force biological? Is it linked to the rest of humanity? Is it actually just a placebo effect?
Survival mechanisms: inputs, spirituality & self-efficacy
Our brain processes innumerable inputs, integrating and filtering these, so we are not overwhelmed and can focus on what is important. This feat is crucial to survival in all animals.
Thus, the question arises: Can we improve our life-force by developing a perception of self-efficacy and increasing our human connections?
Conversely research has frequently found an association between improved health and survival in those with a spiritual belief, as well as in those with strong community connections. In the context of survival, a spiritual belief may seem superfluous to finding food and avoiding danger. However, one of the reasons that spirituality may be beneficial, is that spirituality increases the perception of self-efficacy.
Human survival appears to be dependent on self-efficacy (spirituality and beliefs) and community connection.
Thus, the question arises: Can we improve our life-force by developing a perception of self-efficacy and increasing our human connections?
Biology: expectations, suggestions and neurotransmitters
While the inner workings regarding perception of self-efficacy are yet to be teased out, the effect of expectation and suggestion is starting to be understood. Expectation and suggestion dovetail beautifully into the human experience of spirituality and self-efficacy. In medicine, these are called the placebo and nocebo effects.
While a placebo is defined as experiencing benefit without the stated treatment, nocebo is the experiencing of negative side-effects without having taken the treatment.
The placebo and the nocebo effects are the body responding to its environment.
Researchers are starting to understand how the effects of patients’ positive and negative expectations play a significant part in the response to treatment. The bio-chemical pathways that occur are being worked out. In response to suggestion and expectation, or perception and spirituality, hormones and neuro-transmitter levels change. These hormones and neuro-transmitters set in train a cascade of biological changes, effecting an outcome.
The placebo effect is not nothing. The placebo and the nocebo effects are the body responding to its environment. While this has been studied in a clinical setting, it is not a giant leap to consider that environmental inputs from leaders and groups exert a similar effect.
I have been told countless times how symptoms improved the moment an MD appointment was booked. As the MD, I had nothing to do with the healing, being unaware of the appointment being made. The body responded to the signals in its environment suggesting that healing could be achieved. This is the placebo effect in action. Conversely, the suggestions regarding aspects of Covid19 messaging are in my experience detrimental to health.
Prof. Robert Salposky, neuro-biologist, outlines in his book Behave, the exact biochemical processes behind every decision and action. Neuroscientists know where in the brain a decision is initiated, how it moves through the brain, the hormones and neurotransmitters that influence its course, and how it ends in an action.
The mind, that we thought of as being unique amongst animals, is now being mapped akin to any other biological pathway.
Evolution: myths and stories
Prof. Yuval Harari in his book, Sapiens, ascribes the ascendency of Homo sapiens to our ability to believe myths and stories. We have believed in gods, riches in heaven, individualism and nationalist states. The evolutionary advantage we have gained is cooperation, linking human individuals and groups. This cooperation has enabled sapiens to become the dominant species.
No other species seems to have the ability to respond to something that does not exist. Prof. Hariri writes that a monkey would never be convinced to give up a banana for limitless bananas in the afterlife.
Sapiens’ beliefs in myths and stories, via the ensuing cooperation, has enabled us to radically and inexorably change our environment. Based on these beliefs we have evolved and changed our environment to such an extent that it may no longer support us.
It would thus appear, that believing is part of being a Homo sapiens. It was how we evolved and it is part of our biology.
For this moment, I will leave to one side the challenging conclusion that humans are thus just evolution and biology. We may never know this for sure and it probably doesn’t matter to our survival and life-force. What does matter, however, is belief.
Thus the greatest mystery of humanity, the life-force, may be described as the sum of:
- a combination of random evolutionary events that includes humans embracing myths and stories, enabling cooperation
- the biological pathways of spirituality, belief in myths and stories, along with the biological changes in hormones and neurotransmitters that occur in response to suggestion and expectation
- the perception of self-efficacy and purpose that may be part of the survival mechanism of humans.
From my perspective, it is the third point, that of self-efficacy and purpose, that is the most important in human health and vitality. Recently, I have observed humanity’s life-force to be diminishing. Self-efficacy, human connection and purpose is giving way to unthinking compliance and indifference. For some individuals, when aligning with a group that provides safety, this safety leads to weakening rather than strengthening of the life-force.
So, while the mysteries of being human are being slowly peeled away, humans find themselves at a crossroads: survival through purpose and self-efficacy or survival through safety.
The Risk of Safety
In foregoing the pursuit of self-efficacy and choosing the safety of simplification, humans are at risk of diminishing their life-force and of defaulting to tribalism. This is being done in return for the safety of numbers and the knowledge of “being right.”
Tribes and groups
Modern sapiens consider themselves superior to their ancestors. We no longer wear talismans or hang garlic above our doors. We have science not superstition. We have technology.
However, our environments are changing so quickly that we can barely keep up. It is so much easier just to do what we are told to do; an example is that of a health professional icing a sprain, when it is known not to be beneficial. For interest , I refer to the story on the RICE protocol by Will Zolpe.
When humans can’t keep up and forego self-efficacy, a gap is created. A gap filled by industry and individuals “guiding” us for the benefit of a few: their own tribe to the exclusion of those deemed less worthy. The processed food and pharmaceutical industries are prime examples. Have you ever wondered why sugary breakfast cereal has a heart tick? Have you wondered why good evidence on Vitamin D and Covid19 is barely mentioned in the media, while the dubious efficacy of face covering is portrayed as non-negotiable?
We feel safe when we are part of a tribe or a group, which risks:
- My tribe is kind we say, so we do what we are told.
- My tribe looks out for its people we say, so we report on our neighbors.
- My tribe has been told that the other tribe is dangerous, so we set out to harm them.
When humans identify with a tribe, and adhere to the tribal myths and stories, they believe they are right — by definition.
Humans no longer have time or energy for thought, research and questioning. Humans feel safe doing what they are told to do, sitting in comfort and being outraged by those who differ. When humans identify with a tribe, and adhere to the tribal myths and stories, they believe they are right – by definition. Humans believe they are right because they are compliant.
I loved how the foregoing of self-efficacy was illustrated in the story by Kyrie Gray, where the hero, disenchanted with the Emperor choses not to join the rebels. Despite the risk of losing his power, the hero decides to join a third group. This group promises to fix the problems in the galaxy. Humanity repeatedly outsources the overwhelm they have created, thereby doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.
I have visions of masses of humanity blindly following a group they have chosen, feeling safe. The personal and moral implications being brushed aside for the benefit of the tribe. Humans following a leader resulting in their own suffering and demise. Look up the movie “Children of Men” for a glimpse into a future dystopia.
Sapiens appear weakened physically, eating fake food, masking their emotions and fighting each other for fear of getting too close.
The risk, of safety and of being right by definition, are a diminishing of the life-force. Risk is of course not absolute. Despite choosing a group and by being right by definition, my mother’s life-force appears strong. Aligning with a group is perhaps her expression of purpose and self-efficacy.
Investigative journalist, Katherine Eban stated in her interview with ICIJ, that there are some people who can sleep at night despite knowing of great injustices, but whistle blowers and investigative journalists cannot; they are she states “a different breed.”
Each individual human makes a daily decision, consciously or unconsciously, that involves self-efficacy and purpose or compliance and safety.
The choice between self-efficacy and purpose versus compliance and safety is never simple. It is always fluid, changing in the moment. I will wear a mask as this person is fearful, thus enhancing my connection with them. I will also support my expectations of a strong body, thus setting in train the hormones and neurotransmitters that make it so.
Aligning with any group can be beneficial to our life-force. Aligning with compliance or questioning may be equally beneficial. The group does not matter, whether it be politicians, churches, sports teams, scientists, traditional healers or parents.
However, the group on its own appears not to be enough. In addition humans require self-efficacy, purpose and connection.
The progression of sapiens may mean that we can now, albeit slowly and tentatively, give up the safety of being right. We can develop our self-efficacy and strengthen our connections. We may no longer need to believe the same myths and stories to cooperate.
The progression of sapiens may mean that we can now give up the safety of being right.
Sapiens are the only species that can actually access the tools that have facilitated their own evolution and life-force. We can use our understanding of biology, evolution and the role of the myths and stories we believe.
If human life-force is to thrive, it may be necessary to harness the aspects of our humanity that make us the dominant species.
- The survival mechanism of simplifying environmental stimuli can be challenged by asking “What if that is not right?”
- We can try out different environmental inputs. We can quieten our expectations of outrage when these inputs are different to our current beliefs. Likewise we can quieten our expectations of the feel-good dopamine burst we experience when our beliefs are reinforced by our chosen leader.
- The myths and stories we choose to believe can be those of questioning, of seeking to enhance our self-efficacy and to supporting connection.
Pursuit of Life-Force
Evolution may have put me on this planet and biology makes my brain work like no other species. I undoubtedly believe in myths and stories. With these powers, I aim to build my perception of self-efficacy, the purpose which drives me and thus my life-force. In this way, I am forging connection and cooperation with other humans.
My belief is that of questioning. I do not accept “there is no cause” or “ you just have bad genes.” In pursuit of health and healing, I have studied the biological, spiritual and evolutionary make-up of Homo sapiens.
Having had the privilege of a glimpse into humanity, complying would be a slap in the face to all those who have shared their lives with me. Questioning, for myself and my patients, is part of my life-force.
For my mother the risks in pursuing safety are trivial. Trying out different environmental inputs is not an option for her. For me, the risks that come with blindly following a known environmental input are not acceptable. I am driven to always question. My mother and I may have chosen different groups and beliefs to support our individual mechanisms of survival, but we can at least talk about the weather. Perhaps this is part of the progression of Homo sapiens.
Alongside biological health, Homo sapiens need the self-efficacy of belief and human connection for vitality and life-force.
I do not aim to be right by definition — and I would love to have a normal conversation with my mother.