An excerpt from Alberto’s new book Power Up Your Brain, The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, with David Perlmutter, MD
In the 17th century, James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, published a treatise that identified the date on which God created the world: the evening preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 b.c.e. on the Julian calendar. Although his chronology was based on the patriarchal lineages described in Genesis and inaccurate from a scientific perspective, the Archbishop was not totally wrong. Today, while we dismiss the good Archbishop’s claim as a flight of religious fancy, he did approximate the date on which the gifts of the prefrontal cortex of the brain were becoming available for large sections of humanity at the dawn of civilization and the invention of writing
But this self-awareness didn’t happen overnight; rather, it took countless generations for the prefrontal cortex to become functional enough to warrant a circuitry connection with the older parts of the brain. In fact, fossil evidence of the earliest changes in this part of the brain dates back 2.5 million years ago, during the Pliocene epoch, when an early hominid called Australopithecus africanus lived. The enlarged cranium of A. africanus—a member of the “Great Apes” family, which includes humans—was more like that of modern humans than his immediate predecessors.
This means that the artists of the Altamira cave and the hunters of the Pleistocene epoch who lived 20- 50,000 years ago had the same brain structures we have today. Yet most members of the species lacked the nutritional support and mind-body disciplines that would allow them to experience artistic creativity and scientific discovery. This is why only a few isolated individuals awakened to the potential of the prefrontal cortex. Indeed, the gifted crafted their great works of art during secretive ceremonies deep inside caves.
With the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, when abundant and brain-rich food supplies became available, the prefrontal cortex began to stir. During the late Neolithic period, starting around 7,000 years ago, our ancestors initiated horticulture, which ended the need to follow and harvest food from a nomadic herd. They domesticated cattle and sowed grain crops and ground the grain into cereal. They developed a curiosity for science, exploration, and perhaps even love. And they conceived of transoceanic travel; for example, Micronesian navigators built sailing canoes in which they navigated the open ocean for hundreds of miles, using only the stars for reference and arriving at islands that were not visible from their point of departure. It was around this time in history that writing and city-states emerged in many geographically disconnected societies around the globe.
At that time, as civilization emerged in the Fertile Crescent in western Asia and the sprawling city of Mohenjo-Daro rose along the Sarasvati River in what is now Pakistan, the dietary staples of the political and religious leaders came from the Himalayan rivers and the Mediterranean Sea. These were fish and mollusks rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a brain food that has become increasingly scarce in the human diet of today. DHA provided the neuronutrient boost that brought the previously installed prefrontal cortex’s software online. : Is it not possible that the benefits of a DHA-rich diet explain why a great Master—Jesus of Nazareth—chose simple fishermen as candidates wise enough to be his apostles, his “fishers of men”
However, while the prefrontal software was already installed in all humans of the time, the masses, though capable of tapping into the wisdom of this brain, were still struggling between two mind-sets—the old and the new.
The Old Mind-Set versus the New Mind-Set
To truly understand the conflict inside the human mind, let’s compare the power of the prefrontal cortex, or new, higher brain, with the prowess of the old brain. The old brain perceives the world as a frightening place, filled with rivals competing for the same scarce resources. To this brain, what matters most is survival, and it is always ready to fight or to flee. Considering that the old brain developed in mammals at a time when large, stomping dinosaurs still roamed, it is no wonder that these survival mechanisms were firmly embedded in the core of those small, fuzzy creatures that we developed from.
The old brain in humans gave rise to the belief that the spirit world is populated with fierce gods who demand sacrifice and that the physical world is prey to invisible forces that are to be appeased. In many mythologies, the earth was populated by titans, giants with extraordinary powers, who had to be defeated. The early Greeks, for example, identified 12 Titans who ruled the earth during the legendary Golden Age. In the King James Bible, God tells Moses of “a land of giants [who] dwelled therein in old time.”1 In Greek mythology, the Titans were a race of older gods whom the Olympians banished to the darkest depths of the underworld in the War of the Titans.
The old brain seeks magical and religious explanations for natural phenomena, be they the formation of mountain ranges or the course of rivers or the tempest of storms. Legends of the Inka tell of the four original beings who could move mountains and establish the course of rivers with their bare hands. Zeus, the king of the sky, wielded a thunderbolt that he periodically used to wreak havoc on the earth.
With such mythic precedent, the old brain righteously claims, “My god is stronger than your god,” and believes that only those of “our faith” have been chosen for salvation, while everyone else is a pagan or a heathen destined for a hellish experience in the afterlife.
The new brain, however, understands that we do not have to live in a continuous state of threat. It knows that we are not struggling to survive in a hostile world haunted by death. It comprehends, rather, that we are all interconnected, that we can practice compassion by “turning the other cheek” and “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves,” and that physical “death” is really an opportunity to return to a heavenly realm—a precept that lies at the core of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
But even this mind-set is a matter of consciousness. At first, only those living in monastic communities and among religious orders attained this insight of the ways of wisdom. Meanwhile, the older mind-set in the majority of the populace continued to be tempted by the ways of fear. This mind-set continued to seek wealth and justify greed, while the newer, higher mind-set called out to the ways of love and artistic expression. These two, seemingly opposite callings have plagued humanity for millennia—and continue to do so. The disparity will only be resolved when we can turn on the truly beneficial neural programs inherent in the prefrontal cortex.
It is clear that our reasoning abilities, rooted in the more evolved brain, are not enough to prevent our suffering or give us the opportunity to create a more habitable, peaceful, and sustainable world. Indeed, if reason had ever prevailed over passion, the story of humanity would not be written in blood.
At this point in history, our species is in need of the next great opportunity offered by our prefrontal cortex, which will allow us to entertain the ancient notion of a web of life in which all creatures, and even inanimate matter, are interconnected as part of a field of information and energy. To experience enlightenment and learn to interact with this cosmic web, we must begin by healing that part of our bodies that allows us to dream a new world into being: our prefrontal cortex.
Mitochondria and the Feminine Life Force
Intricately linked to the ability of the prefrontal cortex to come fully online are the mitochondria—the powerhouses of your cells and the feminine life force referred to by shamans. Mitochondria are the conductors of the genetic orchestra that regulate how every cell ages, divides, and dies. They wave the baton that helps dictate which genes are switched on and which are switched off in every one of our cells. And they provide the fuel for establishing new neural networks. And all of the mitochondrial DNA in your body is inherited solely from your mother’s lineage. That means that the source of energy that sustains your life, is derived exclusively from the women in your family tree—your matrilineage.