Dreams and fear must have played a preponderant force in the evolution of our ancestors’ psychology and beliefs in God
By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
Our hominids ancestors, whose brain volume capacity was less than ours, had to face an adverse environment, and learned to adapt to all dangers. Even without proper stone tools they had to find ways to survive; these new trends in their mental, physiological and social developments forced them into social cooperation and cohesiveness to combat the common enemy, be it hunger, predators, climatic cataclysms and diseases. Seeing how other predators were ganging up together to kill their prey they realized that cooperation had its virtue. So they devised – unconsciously – a form of social cooperation to track and kill their prey; the same strategy was extended to face any enemy or predators. Evolutionary psychologists believe this gregarious activity stirred the development of finer feelings and a form of collective awareness and self-control.
Burying the dead
Suppose we were living in that faraway time, and one of our buddies who had helped us to fight the enemy had died. In earlier times, such death of an individual would have gone unnoticed. But now that we had been hunting together for the good of the tribe our reaction would be to see to it that our dead associate was not left unattended, lest he be devoured in turn by the predators or vultures. Is it possible that was the feeling that motivated our ancestors to start heaping stones on or burying their dead? Which process would also stir us to finer emotions and empathy for that pal who had accompanied us in so many risky ventures? In time, we would embellish the burial site of our dead by sacrificing the best that he had, like his stone tools – even though these would have been more useful and precious to the living. To say we buried our friend because we were starting to think of an afterlife would be too preposterous of us, though this conception came later in the evolution of Homo Sapiens.
Of course, modern archeologists might give more importance to the graves that include some form of relics, of jewellery or tool – just to stress on the fact that our ancestors had reached a high standard of development in their feelings when burying their dead; yet heaping stones on the dead was the first step to a new form of belief. Soon the living were induced to think of their own fate after death; that they would not like their body – with which they had come to identify the self – to be left to scavengers of all sorts. And gradually our ancestors’ brain size increased; self-awareness and the belief in a soul took root, language evolved, and the scene was set for a belief in a life after death. Could that have been the scenario that beliefs had gone through thousands of years ago?
Nowadays our species has embraced art in all its forms. Notable among them is painting; true to our curiosity and love of knowledge we want to know when and how this artistic talent was born. We are told that our ancestors started to indulge in it some 40 to 80 thousand years ago, when frescos had appeared on the walls of caves. Naturally we jump to the conclusion that overnight our ancestors got the inspiration to draw and paint, thereby illustrating the superior mental quality of Homo Sapiens.
Theories have been put forward to suggest that these paintings had been done by beings who had some autistic traits, for modern autistic individuals under the effect of some psychotic drugs would reproduce similar drawings. Or still, could the shaman, being under the influence of some herbal drug or resin aroma indulge in this highly unique and creative activity?
However if one looks carefully at most of the ancient wall frescos, there is one thing that may be striking. Our ancestors did not draw trees, flowers or other human beings. The most common motifs were about animals – buffalos and other wild beasts. Is it possible that they were motivated to paint, not because they had a sudden urge to be artistic, but because they were under the intense pressure of the moment during harsh winter, when food was scarce, when our ancestors were almost starving? The only idea on their mind was to have venison, which would mean the difference between life and death. Could it be that that venison was the prevailing, motivating force pushing our ancestors to draw, out of frustration, hunger and despair?
One could counter that that was not the case, because the artist would not spend time or waste his patience to embellish and colour his work of art while being under duress and stress. But maybe those paintings were not done overnight. Perhaps they were etched during long, painful, cold nights in the caves… who knows. Our ancestors were dreaming and hallucinating about their virtual prey, which in great despair they elevated to a higher and higher pedestal by adding all sorts of hues to their creations. Was the Shaman the privileged one? – and the others mere spectators gazing as the much coveted prey took form on the wall, dreaming of faraway food, completely out of reach?
Is it logical to visualize our ancestor – some 30,000 years ago – sitting or standing happily, with a smile on his lips, painting in a dark cave just to express his refined talent as an artist? These animals, by tradition, had even been transformed into an object of veneration, which continued down the ages, as witnessed by so many of our modern civilizations and cultures.
Have we ever thought how the idea started that there is within us a homunculus, a small voice guiding us in our daily survival? How nice it would be if we could find out that first Homo Sapiens who had a vivid dream? How did he react to this strange inner activity? Was he frightened, scared out of his wits? Could he have related his adventure to others?
And was it possible that this activity had finally been equated to having an inner soul, a spirit and kick started our quest for a soul?
We are terribly impressed by our dreams, either they are just wonderful or nightmarish. How did our early ancestors react to this phenomenon? But nowadays, we try to underplay the significance of dreams, they are mere banalities of every night; in so doing we have come to ignore the pivotal role they had played in the evolution of our conception of an intelligent spirit, of our little inner voice and perhaps of God. Is it possible that they triggered a beginning of spirituality?
Finally that inner voice occupied a special place in our life and we came to look upon it as an extension of a cosmic spirit. And with the external perpetual threat present in the outside world, always whipping up all sorts of fears in the heart of our ancestors, the latter found some solace and predictive value in their dreams and spirit – which they gradually came to identify with an external benevolent, or cruel, higher being. Dreams and fear must have played a preponderant force in the evolution of our ancestors’ psychology and beliefs in God.
In many cultures, more so in India, a lot of virtue is associated with the practice of self- control and breathing exercises. This is a central theme in yoga, where the body and the rhythmic inhaling and exhaling processes are synchronized to produce harmony. With new grounds being broken in science – and discovering that an individual can concentrate in only one task at a time – we realize that no one can indulge in this Prana while concentrating on another job simultaneously. Somehow concentrating on breathing in and out one becomes more aware of oneself. Could that exercise, practised everyday, open up some neural circuits in our brain propitious for the generation of self-awareness? It is as if we are exercising that nervous pathway to enlarge it, so as to maintain our self-conscious alight as long as possible. That would make us more prone to self-control, hence to less impulsiveness and aggressiveness. The contention is that Prana and self-consciousness go hand in hand.
Some scientific work is showing that the repetition of any mental activity opens up a neural circuit, fortifies that path, with the synapses between the neurons thereby migrating closer and closer as more and more neurons become connected, strengthening and facilitating that mental activity. That’s the philosophy behind all training and learning.
* Published in print edition on 8 February 2019