Evolutionary Biology & Adolescent Decision-Making

I have a student, Patrick, who in his first year of High School, felt that he had no community. His capacity for intelligent thought is very high, and accordingly he got straight A’s and asked deep questions, but the pain of feeling as though he didn’t a social network caused him to transfer from his large, public high school to our Expeditionary Learning high school of 90 students as a sophomore.

At once, he was welcomed into the community, though he remained shy for almost the entire first semester. He achieved straight A’s again. But as he entered second semester, he began to loosen up a bit and find community on a deeper level. He became the practical jokester of the class, and his grades slipped to mostly B’s with a few A’s. This year, as a Junior, he is creating some sort of a practical joke almost every class period – sometimes they are hilarious, and sometimes they are not. His grades have slipped to almost all C’s, he has hosted a few parties for his classmates at his house, got an earring (a big diamond stud), and been arrested and suspended for being drunk in school and distributing alcohol to a few other students at the school.

The funny thing is that as a teacher, I still really like this kid; I mean, that is always my philosophy as a teacher – to love kids and still hold hard lines while guiding them – but this kid I understand on a deeper level (probably because of the extremes of his situation). You see, my own development in some ways mirrors his, with a big nuance that shook me into who I am today.

When I was in 3rd grade, I weighed 100 pounds. That is massive for a 3rd grader – I know because I got made fun of every day about it. Really, all of elementary school was a struggle – I was the fat kid who, at best had one close, dorky friend, and at worse felt totally isolated. During middle school, my physical appearance began to fill out – I gained height and muscle, and this made me pretty good at a few sports, basketball included. This was my long-awaited ‘in’ to the popular social groups, of which I desperately wanted a place. I, like Patrick, began to make choices I had never made before – I chose to be a dick in some of my classes (with teachers who would allow me to get away with it), I even went to a party with alcohol and pretended to drink when I was in 8th grade!

In 9th grade, though, everything changed. I went out for the Freshman football team, and after one week of practice the Varsity Head Coach came to watch our scrimmage. He pulled me up to JV because I was literally knocking kids out. I scrimmaged one game on JV before he pulled me up to Varsity, and by the first game I was starting at Defensive End. I remember specifically a moment during the first week of school, on the back steps of the building, when the kid who had tortured me during my 3rd grade year but moved away after that year showed up on the steps. It turned out that he had moved back to the area and was going to attend 9th grade with me – I hadn’t seen him in six years. He immediately recognized me and a devilish grin crept across his face. But, the scariest senior on the team – an 18 year-old with a full beard and menacing aura – happened to walk out of the doors onto the steps. As Jonas said his first words to me, filled with a clear tone of his intentions, Alex said something to the effect of “are you talking to my boy?” Jonas looked at Alex and his eyes widened, then turned back to me and visibly rocked his head backwards, realizing that I was no longer a fat little kid, but actually looked like I might be able to crush him between my palms, even without Alex’s help. He sputtered a few apologies and stumbled away.

I hated football – to this day I think it’s a stupid idea for a game – but that moment rocked me in the same way Jonas was rocked into the present by Alex’s introduction. I realized, right then and there, that I didn’t have to do anything to be cool anymore. I had done something that every Freshman dreams of but no Freshman had ever done before at my school – made Varsity. I could literally be whatever I wanted to be. It was a pivotal moment for me – one that Patrick didn’t have so drastically, but that I think he could have. I ditched the friends I had made in Middle School who were about to begin their precipitous descent into the world of weed and drugs, and I reconnected strongly with my fun-loving, dorky group of friends whose version of a good time was getting A’s, playing street basketball at night on the weekends instead of going to parties, and building really dumb and poorly constructed bicycle jumps out of old pieces of wood we found from dumpsters.

And this is where I must cease to dive into the dumpsters of my memory and instead take us down a path of Evolutionary Biology as a pathway for exploring Patrick’s situation as compared to mine. Obviously, we – homo sapiens – have many unique aspects to our evolution that separate us from other species. However, there are a few aspects worth highlighting here, as understanding them is essential to understanding why we behave in the oh-so-strangest of ways sometimes.

Let’s start with the obvious: our brains. A homo sapien brain is, on average, 73-85 cubic inches. Comparatively, the brain of an average mammal of 130 pounds is 12 cubic inches. We like to think that our brains are what make us so special – what separates us from and, egotistically, makes us masters of the rest of the living world; however, in reality our large brains were a massive trade-off with nearly devastating consequences for our species.

The brains of most apes use about 8% of their daily energy at rest. Human brains, though only 2-3% of our body weight, use 25% of our daily energy when the body is at rest. Large brains that consume large amounts of energy meant that we would no longer be able to support bodies with big muscles (we are an incredibly weak species, given our size) that would allow us to sprint fast, fight well, or hunt effectively. On top of having nearly no physical abilities of any significance, early homo sapiens in East Africa did not even use many tools, nor were the tools they did use sophisticated – developments in this realm did not occur until the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago. This left our species in quite perilous times for about 130,000 years between our evolution and the cognitive revolution – we were the baby-backed-bitches of the East African savanna, trying to avoid being prey, and trying to figure out how to hunt and gather effectively enough to survive. We were in no way an exceptional species, we must have been just effective enough to make ends meet. So what allowed us to thrive such that we could eventually thrive, and you and I could be born into the most luxurious era the human world has ever seen? The existing evidence points to two adaptations (among many which we will hit on at some point) pertinent to our thought experiment here: social groups and conscious thought / language.

The enormity of our brains had some predictable consequences: our skulls became enormous, too. That, to say nothing of our upright locomotion, had serious consequences for the process of reproduction – giant heads caused childbirth to become an extremely dangerous process. Accordingly, human pregnancies shortened in length to allow the child to be born ‘underdeveloped’ as compared to other species (horses, for example, can walk an hour after birth). As you might expect, birthing an underdeveloped human required more of the development of the being to happen after birth. On the one hand, this helped our ability to be adaptable (more on that in the next section) – development could occur more in the context of the environment to which the child was exposed – and on the other, it also required extended and intensive parental care. Thus, the need for a strong social support network arose – only the tribe and not the individual could complete all of the tasks necessary for both survival and care of the underdeveloped young.

Secondly, we gained the capacity for conscious thought. One component of conscious thought – language – played a major role in our survival and, to this day, explains many of our inexplicable behaviors (yes, paradox intended) and subconscious thoughts; however, let’s begin with thinking about and defining conscious thought more broadly. Conscious thought is a slippery subject because of the uncertainty surrounding the spectrum on which it lies, the illusions it presents in our minds, and the physical origin of conscious thought in the brain. In our case, it refers to the ability to think rather than only perform actions premeditated by our evolutionarily-programmed subconscious. An extension of this is the ability to think about our thinking – to reflect upon what events or actions caused us to think the thoughts. Anecdotally, many non-mammalian animals are operating completely by pre-programmed responses to external stimuli – they don’t think and then do, they just do. Mammals, of course, have the ability to think and then do and seem to use that ability more often than do non-mammals. Humans (as far as we know) top the spectrum for conscious thought.

Now, it’s important to note that just because we have the ability to think consciously does not mean that’s our modus operandi. On the contrary, humans are far more efficient when thinking and doing subconsciously rather than consciously. Notice that I used the word efficient rather than effective – more on that to come. Again, there is an evolutionary reason for this efficiency; a prehistoric human running across the savanna or through a forest – whether from a predator or towards prey – would not want to think consciously about where to place each footfall so as to avoid rocks and roots. The subconscious brain – which knows how to run – processes the informational inputs and makes a decision on the course of action (there’s a rock there, I’m going to adjust my natural stride to miss it) much faster than the thinking brain could do. Harnessing the power of this sort of a subconscious state is the topic of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s prescient and prolific work in Flow: The psychology of optimal experience; contemporary research is giving insights as to why and how this state of being is both efficient and feels good. It turns out that flow states tend to be a product of circumstances that have several common elements: clarity of goals and immediate feedback, especially that which requires risk and consequence; a high level of concentration on a specific field; a balance between skills and challenge; and the feeling of being in control of one’s future outcome. Our previous example of running through the forest fits these constraints well, and the brain follows suit: a host of neurohormones (the famous one being dopamine) increase pattern recognition and processing speed while the prefrontal cortex starts to ‘turn off’ as an energy-saving mechanism. This phenomenon, known as ‘transient hypofrontality,’ allows the brain to only devote energy to doing things it has to do in the moment – whether running down a deer on the savanna or writing a paper covering content you know by heart. Because the prefrontal cortex is where our sense of self and time our housed – essentially, our consciousness – people can experience a sense of ‘being at one with the universe,’ and a dilation of time.

However, just because we are more efficient when operating in the subconscious – also nicknamed our implicit operating system – does not mean that we are more effective. The key characteristic of human survival is our adaptability; the reason for our big brains, for our consciousness, is to be able to learn new tricks. Learning is not an efficient process, of course – we are typically really bad at the new thing we are learning for quite some time. Instead, learning is done to be more effective – we can change our approach or techniques to solve problems in a better, more effective way. And by devoting conscious effort to it, we can learn to do it proficiently, then well, then great, and then in Flow. Examples of human adaptive learning range from putting boards we call skis on our feet to get down a snowy mountain faster, to the typing through which I am conveying information now.

In the case of Patrick, I gave him the storytelling run-down of all of this information in a conference I had with him and his mother last week. Why? I think it’s important to have an understanding of our evolutionary biology in making everyday decisions, especially for adolescents. Patrick was motivated to find a peer group – that’s OK! The desire for social acceptance is written in our DNA and evolutionary history – it’s actually more than a desire, its a need. But as I told Patrick, he is at the same point as I was on those back steps with Jonas and Alex – he has established his worth socially with his community, and now he can decide to be what he wants to be. And this is where things get tricky. In order to actually decide, he needs to decide consciously; otherwise, his subconscious, lower-order brain will make the decision for him based on what it has programmed itself to do – gain social acceptance at the cost of intellectual pursuits. That is not always the most effective path in our lives. Consciously choosing to make the decision he actually wants to make in his life will, like all learning, not be efficient; there will be plenty of moments when he doesn’t actually know what the most effective decision is, or when he has to actively use energy to stop the automatic programming that his brain is pushing him towards, but this process of habit removal and creation is worth it.

Harari, Yuval N. (2015). Sapiens : a brief history of humankind. New York: Harper.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Row.

Post Script: Conscious decision making in the prefrontal cortex is also known as Executive Functioning. Though the term includes more than just the specifics we discussed in this article, the research into the realm of Executive Functioning and ability to delay gratification is fascinating. We’ll cover this in more depth in the future as well as techniques for effective habit change/formation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s