Psychological Cognition and Evolution

By: Dr. Susan Siegfried, Clinical Psychology

Neuroscience is the study of brain function. That function is cognition or thinking. This paper chooses to address how neuroscience and the resulting cognition are connected to psychology. The new field that is studying this is Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience.  Psychologists have been talking about evolution as it applies to many aspects of the field of psychology but it was all based on theory.  With the help of neuroscience, however, we can now bring it into true scientific method research which explains where and how evolution has changed our brain, thereby, changing our thinking and ultimately changing our behavior. When we put these disciplines together we arrive at knowledge known as meta-theory.

Watching Brain Structures Communicate

Some years ago medical science began using Positron emission tomography(PET) imaging or  scans but radio active PET scans to produce 3D, color images of the functional process of the brain so we can literally watch the living brain think.  The brain only uses glucose (sugar) as fuel. So radio active glucose is injected into the spinal column and the body sends it to the brain to use as fuel.  When a structure of the brain is functioning it burns more fuel.  On the PET scan the areas using the most glucose show up as a brighter color.  We can actually watch the process of cognition.  We can see structures communicate with one another.  This is where brain mapping comes from.  We can map a person’s brain while in surgery so we know where structures are so we do not damage vital parts of the brain.

Early psychologists and behaviorists, like Skinner and Watson, proposed the function of the brain to be like a blank slate. Thereby, any person had an unlimited number of directions they could follow in filling their slate.  Skinner said that if you gave him any normal health infant he could program it to be what ever you wanted, doctor, lawyer, banker, auto mechanic or gambler. We now look at the brain from a more anatomical and scientific perspective.  Cognition is adaptive.  We learn from observation, experience or education those things that can hurt us and help us.  We then avoid harmful situations to stay alive.  The human that does not learn or learn to give attention to what they have learned with not heed the warning and perform the behavior that is dangerous and die they by not reproducing and that type of thinking is not passed on.  Thereby our intelligence, at least in certain areas, becomes greater over generations.  We know that cognition is the cooperation of many areas of the brain to solve a problem.  Those with a greater number of these areas will also make better, thereby, passing on the greater connectivity as well. This may be reminding you of Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest.  It seems it also applies to brain structures as well as physical prowess.

What we believe is that experience in the form of code it put into the brain and it is this code that is passes between synaptic connections allowing for the solution to be determined and then acted upon. This is called functional architecture (Code, passes through brain structures = solution leading to action). Poor or slow or poor solutions often lead to early demise thereby reducing the possibility of passing on slow or inappropriate problem solving or brain function.

So What Does This Have to Do With Everyday Psychology?

It changes the way we teach. We have a better idea of when to teach something because we know the brain is not complete until an individual is 25 to 27 years old.  There is not point in teaching something that needs a part of the brain that is not yet ready to receive the material.    Cognitive psychologists believe this late age of 25 for brain maturity is a part of evolution.  Many years ago we did not need all the knowledge we need today to be successful.  Therefore our emotions could be governed more easily.  Example:  150 years ago a 15 year old male would most likely be married with at least one child and running the farm.  He knew how to run the farm because he grew up on it.  His parents may be still living on the farm with the young man but not for long as age expectancy was about 45 years. If the young man raises enough to eat he is doing well. If there is extra to be sold he is doing especially well and the children get new shoes.  The emotional control is minimal as life is relatively simple.  The same young man today needs a degree in farming so he can control chemicals, understand weather, buy appropriate machinery so the process can be very large and fast and predict the weather.  If he produces too little he may not be able to pay back his seed loan, pay the tax on the land and may indeed lose the farm.  There is a lot more involved in the second scenario.  The second scenario depicts more stress.  Therefore, cognitive psychologists believe the complicated society is requiring our brains to physically change to deal with the stress to maintain emotional control.  Because we need to know more and deal with a more stressful environment the brain needs longer to reach completion because heredity is constantly passing on more things we need to survive. Back to teaching differently, we then know we need to teach to stress control and exercise it so the brain connections are there as soon as possible. An example of this is undergraduate colleges requiring faculty to teach group work and require students to work in groups. This is very stressful for students.  The idea is our world works in team or groups so we must build those connections. It is difficult to give up control of one’s GPA to a group.  It takes a lot of work for students to get used to this type of teaching and testing.  In generations to come the group work ability should be passes on through the evolutionary process. People will know how to do it automatically because there is a place in the brain where the knowledge or instinct exists.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is used a great deal today because it is the fastest of the talk therapies we have. It is based on the theory that if you change your thinking you will change your behavior and if you change your behavior you will change your thinking. Hence, by doing both at the same time you will change faster. Outcome studies show that it does really work.

The area in which therapist are thinking about evolution is in Anxiety Disorders.  It would appear that anxiety is based on survival fear.  Fear of snakes, spiders and large animals that are meat eaters is an instinct that was there to keep us alive.  Today, we not concerned with being dinner for large animals however fears remain. Our fears, however, are not as obvious.  Cognitive behavioral therapists have begun looking at the fears from the evolutionary perspective rather than the old biological perspective which help speed up diagnosis and tailors treatment correctly.