The Survivor Brain and Your Brain’s Basic Instincts

This Sunday on the season finale of Brain Games, host Jason Silva travels to Colorado Springs where he meets several people who personify the word “survivor” and puts their brains to the test in a battery of challenges engineered to demonstrate what it takes to be a super survivor. Viewers will discover the key to tapping into the brain’s built-in survival instinct.

Before this weekend’s premiere of The Survivor Brain, we invited a couple of experts on ancestry and the “survival of the fittest” to weigh in. We asked them the questions below:

What role do you think our ancestral instincts play today in helping us survive, thrive and accomplish our goals? How many of our ancestral instincts are innate versus learned?

Here’s what they had to say:

ScienceBlogs’ Greg Laden, of Greg Laden’s Blog, writes, “We have evolved to learn. We probably have ‘built-in’ mechanisms to learn new things. This means that when we have learned something new, that new skill or information is a product of something innate and something from our environment.” Laden continues, “Humans pay a high evolutionary cost for this ability to learn. We have developed, over evolutionary time, a mostly novel stage of development that we call childhood, during which we are vulnerable and demand a great deal of parental investment, far beyond our nearest primate relatives.” He adds, “In other words, we are adapted, by evolution, to be adaptable to the particular context in which we live. For this reason, our actual (in the sense of current, now) set of survival skills is adapted to the present because we are shaped by evolution to be able to do that.” On the other hand, Laden explains, “We are endowed, for better or worse, with automatic reactions to the environment, such as the stress reactions and the famous ‘four F’s’ of fighting, fleeing, feeding, and sex. Our learned abilities incorporate these basic limbic (brain and endocrine) functions, but these functions are powerful and often produce less-than-ideal results.” Read more: Does Our Paleolithic Past Shape Our Modern Survival Instinct? >>

Javier Baena, of Paleoaprende, says, “Individually, we have lost many of the ecological or biological data needed to survive (plants and edible roots, natural medicines, recognition of weather changes, etc.) and the technical abilities to solve problems (how to make a string, how to make a trap, etc.).” Baena continues, “But the basic structure is inside us, and of course, the social knowledge has preserved — in some individuals — those abilities and cultural resources until today.” He adds, “Of course, we are animals and, as such, we have a survival instinct that provides us with biological and chemical solutions to certain circumstances.” Baena says, “In certain circumstances, we could recover some of our natural abilities that are ‘asleep’ during the experience of our modern life.”

Thank you Greg Laden’s Blog and Paleoaprende for your insight into this mysterious and complex subject. Tune in to the season finale of Brain Games: The Survivor Brain, Sunday, March 20, at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.

Watch a preview from this week’s episode: 
Let’s see how our survivors handle the stress of being dropped face-down into a 700-foot canyon.