Inspired by this issue’s cover story on the evolution of the human brain, our mild-mannered creative consultant, Dick Anderson, a 30-year veteran of the Networker, added an unexpected jolt of primal excitement to one of our recent staff meetings. He launched into a story about the time he was walking down a deserted street and a vicious dog darted out in front of him and started snarling menacingly. Suddenly, he heard a huge roar come out of his own mouth, a noise so loud, sudden, unexpected, and terrifying that it scared both him and the dog, which skulked silently away. Afterward, his jaw aching and throat sore, he wondered, “Where did that come from?”
Where indeed? That experience of visceral fear and the instinctive readiness to fight for his life was coming from the deepest, darkest, oldest parts of Dick’s brain. Even after many millions of years of evolution, our modern neocortex—the thinking, reasoning, “civilized” part of our brains—awkwardly coexists with much more primitive parts that still have the power to vanquish our most determined efforts at high-mindedness. And it’s a good thing! It wasn’t the ability to think wonderful thoughts and make chitchat at dinner parties that allowed our predecessors to evolve from worms to fishes to reptiles to mammals to various forms of ape and apelike hominids and, finally, to our glorious, present selves. Rather, it was that vast, unconscious network of blind instincts for finding food, fighting or fleeing enemies, and mating that kept humans and their ancestors alive for hundreds of millions of years.
Generally, the primitive serpent brain, the ancient mammalian brain, and the late-blooming rational brain we think of as our “real self” seem to get along all right, until they don’t. When they don’t—when the two lower orders erupt on their own, without warning—there’s all hell to pay. This is where psychotherapy often comes in.
For more than a century, therapists have focused on psychological theories concerned primarily with individual stories of personal identity. What the new brain science is teaching us, however, is that what we think of as purely our individual or family stories, even our social and ethnic narratives, are themselves enclosed within a much older, deeper story, situated along an inconceivably long timeline. This far bigger narrative, encompassing the whole history of humankind, as well as that of the furry and scaled ancestors that preceded our Johnny-come-lately species, transcends the puny narrative of our own small lives.
All very interesting, you say, but how can this ever-more-astonishing field of brain science actually help therapists practice their craft right now? In this issue, you’ll hear from a group of contributors who are attempting to find answers to that provocative question in their consulting rooms. Whatever the ultimate answers may be, we’re already discovering that learning about the brain can fundamentally expand our understanding not only of what’s happening inside our clients, but also of what’s happening inside us during therapy.
Our growing understanding of the brain offers the tantalizing promise of an entirely different kind of relationship with ourselves, as we, quite literally, get to develop a more intimate friendship with our own nervous systems. Some of this issue’s contributors even suggest that understanding how we can better affect our own brains is becoming increasingly important for our survival as a species. At least, we stand to gain a salutary sense of humility about our self-aggrandizing place in the world and realize that—whatever our hunger for transcendence and meaning—in the end, we’re biological creatures, whose existence depends on our ability to survive among other living creatures.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.