— The following is an adapted excerpt from Scott Carney’s The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience. In his new book from Foxtopus Ink, the New York Times best-selling author guides readers on a globe-spanning investigation into the limits of endurance by exploring the human body’s potential, and discovering along the way exactly how humans can ‘wedge’ control over automatic physiological responses into the breaking point between stress and biology. The journey starts with understanding the subtle language of how the body responds to its environment.
I’ve got some bad news. Normally a message like this is delivered in a scream of unmitigated terror. If you’ve got a flair for the dramatic you could turn the lights down low, or change the bulbs so they’re blood red. Imagine the whirring urgency of a siren getting ever closer until it demands every last shred of attention that your body could muster. Your skin should be crawling; your pupils dilating form the surge of adrenaline. (Incidentally, if you happen not to be a human, this applies to you, too, so feel free to wave your flagella, beat your wings, gnash your gangs or swish your fins in unmitigated anguish.)
Ready? Here goes:
We’re all going to die.
OK, you already knew that. And perhaps I was being a little over the top. But the fact is that no matter how far we want to push that realization from our minds, it’s just a matter of time before everything you ever were goes away.
You know this so well, that the very notion of death is coded into your neurons and into every cellular function, sensation and bodily reaction. In the 300,000 years or so that it took Homo sapiens to emerge from our distant primate ancestors—wait, lets go even bigger—in the three billion-year process of evolution that life took to go from single cells to its various forms today, death has always been the anvil against which every minute adaptation and change had to test itself against.
A new genetic innovation comes up, and then it’s tested by our cruel, harsh and unemotional environment. That’s the way most of us think about evolution.
But there’s something important that we need need to consider in the context of how you or I might feel about our ultimate demise. Every creature along the timeline from the most distant reaches in our evolutionary past to now had a reason to go on living. It wasn’t just because they wanted to pass on their genes, but because there was something about living that was just simply worth it.
Most evolutionary biologists miss the importance of individual experience. It’s not preserved in the record of bones and fossils that they up. But we know that every creature in our timelines had some ability to make decisions about how to act and react to the world, their decisions mattered in how they passed on their genes. And those decisions were, and continue to be, the meaning of life itself. They’re the reason that you’re here at all.
But I’m not here simply to talk about evolution. I’m here on this stage today to tell you about how you can use that knowledge of death that’s coded into every bodily sensation and emotion to fundamentally change the way your body operates. To change the way you respond to stressful situations, and increase your ability to thrive in just about any environment.
It’s an ability that we all have that I’ve come to call The Wedge. I didn’t exactly invent it. Anyone who has studied yoga, meditation, breathwork, mindfulness, qi gong or any traditional medical system will see cognates to what I’m talking about here. All of these methods share an interesting perspective on human experience.
The first thing I need to tell you about The Wedge is that right now you are living in the past. We all are. In the time it takes my words to travel through the air to your ears, and then nanoseconds that your sensory system processes the vibrations and translate it into something meaningful, the world has already moved onwards. Your body takes time to do the work it was designed for. But even more important, the way that you react and understand my words has to do with everything you have ever thought and felt throughout your life. And this is because of the structure of your brain. By which I mean a basic piece of anatomy that’s shared by almost all animals called the limbic system.
I want you to take a moment and think about what it might feel like to plunge into ice water. And, for the sake of this talk, let’s pretend this is the first time you ever did anything remotely like this before. Let’s say it’s the very first time that you ever felt cold in your life.
The second the water touches your skin neurons translate the stimulus into chemical signals that surge through your peripheral nervous system and up the thick cords of your spinal column. From the signal arrives at the base of your brain stem as … what exactly? At this point your body only knows two things—the intensity of the sensation and it’s unique character. Remember, it’s never felt this before, so it has no idea what “cold” is. A nanosecond or two in all you have is signal and data, but it doesn’t mean anything. Your mind has no way to make sense of it. It is just SENSATION.
In addition to being the first place that sensation arrives in the brain, the Limbic system is also the center of emotion. And that’s no coincidence, because emotion is the way we’re built to understand the world.
What’s more, the limbic system is something like a library. And inside it spongy walls is a catalogue of every sensation that you have ever felt before. And like any good library I like to think that there’s a librarian in charge of the catalogue. Let’s call her the Limbic Librarian.
This librarian detects the incoming sensation and then searches all of its records for the last time it felt something similar. However, since this is the first time you’ve ever felt ice water before, the librarian needs to call in some help. She passes the signal along to a place called the “paralimbic cortex” who you can think of as a sort of book publisher. The paralimbic cortex’s most important job is to pair incoming sensations with emotions, write them down in an intelligible state, and shuttle the new book back to the librarian. The paralimbic cortex detects your emotional state, and then bonds it into a little book called a “neural symbol”. In the case of ice-cold water this emotion is usually unmitigated anguish. This new neural symbol then heads back to the limbic librarian who files it away—an emotion and sensation bonded together under the title “Ice water is unmitigated anguish”.
I know it might not seem like it, but this is a limbic bestseller.
Now. Let’s fast forward a little bit to the NEXT time that you jump into ice water. Now the limbic librarian gets the same sensation, searches her catalogue and pulls the earlier neural symbol off the shelf and passes along that information to the rest of your brain to start making a plan about what to do about the situation.
This is the basic architecture of your brain, and what’s so important about it is that you only really experience something the very first time you feel it. After that your brain has organized all of the information about a particular event or sensation into a catalogue of your past emotions. This means that you’re almost always living in your emotional past.
Neural symbols are the bits and bites of every single human experience. Sensation and emotion bonded together are the most basic unit of consciousness.
This bit of knowledge is one of the most important things we can ever learn. Because once we understand that the only way we experience the present is through the lens of the past, we start to have a measure of control for how we can experience the future. While neural symbols can’t ever truly be destroyed, simply being alive allows us an opportunity to flood the limbic library with new books. Not every volume in the library has to be “unmitigated anguish.” Indeed, if those shelves are poorly stocked, then the librarian will have to make sense of the world through what she has available in the rest of the catalogue. And since we know how they’re made, we have the power to write whatever books we want. We can bond sensations to new emotions and alter our entire outlook on the way we live or lives.
What this means is that we can use neural symbols to interrupt chronic conditions that leave us crippled with depression, anxiety and in some cases even autoimmune illnesses that stem from stress. To some degree, those chronic conditions all start out of the neural grammar established by that limbic librarian.
The trick is finding the right sort of stimulus and then discovering ways to modulate our emotional responses to them.
So, over the last few years I’ve studied with yogis, shamans in the Peruvian Amazon, therapists in Denver, endurance athletes and at a cutting edge neuroscience laboratory in Stanford to discover ways to create neural symbols. I’ve found that if you can put yourself in a stressful situation, and then discover how to control your feelings and your body in that moment, that you can extend control over all sorts of aspects of your life–making you more resilient, creative, happier and healthier.
Some of the things look a little dangerous from the outside—like spending five hours in a sweltering sauna in Latvia, swimming with sharks, to learning a dance with a partner where a single mistake has the potential to break a bone. I’ve even tried psychedelic drugs in the presence of trailed clinicians in order to create emotional breakthroughs. All of this is sort of dangerous. But none of it is so difficult that it’s beyond the reach of any other ordinary person.
But in some ways, these minor risks are sort of the point.
On the broadest level, we must understand that death is wired into our nervous systems as part of an indefinitely long evolutionary process, but that death itself it’s really the problem. We all know that we are going to die. So the only question of any real meaning is what we’re supposed to do with the time we have on earth. Are we meant to live in fear of the inevitable? Or do we embrace the fact that the end is coming and then try to make every moment as meaningful as possible? I would argue that our impending demises oblige us to take risks that stretch our abilities so that we can experience as much of the world as possible. These risks aren’t supposed to be the kind that will immediately kill us, of course, but they should teach us not to live in fear. We are alive because we are supposed to make the most of the time we have–to build ways to experience the extremes of the world, not through a lens of fear, but through a lens of love.
And that’s the meaning of life.
Investigative journalist and anthropologist Scott Carney has worked in some of the most dangerous and unlikely corners of the world. His work blends narrative non-fiction with ethnography. What Doesn’t Kill Us was a New York Times bestseller; other works include The Red Market and The Enlightenment Trap. Carney was a contributing editor at Wired for five years and his writing also appears in Mother Jones, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Foreign Policy, Discover, Outside and Fast Company. His work has been the subject of a variety of radio and television programs, including on NPR and National Geographic TV. In 2010, he won the Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism for his story “Meet the Parents,” which tracked an international kidnapping-to-adoption ring. Carney has spent extensive time in South Asia and speaks Hindi. He attended Kenyon College and has a masters degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives in Denver.
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