2 minute read
Primates are obviously quite different from other animals, but not necessarily in the ways in which we might think. Many of the traits which we historically have considered unique to us have been observed in other species. 60 years ago it was widely believed that other mammals did not experience emotions, while now it is recognized that emotional cognition is something we share in some fashion with all mammals – it is the means by which mammals decide what to do.
Our sub-group of primates (Hominidae) exhibits a neurological mechanism that is not found in other animals. This mechanism overrides our more ancient cognitive devices, inhibiting our instinctual and emotional responses. In our species, we experience this directly as our ability to control our drives, instincts, and emotions, as well as many of our reflexive automatic motor functions. This is a prerequisite to enable high-level cortical functions. Our conscious minds would be useless for deciding the best course of action when that course of action contradicts an instinctual or emotional impulse, without the ability to override it. Learned behaviors such as walking both inhibit and utilize these innate reflexes. We do not learn to walk, but rather learn how to control our innate automatic reflexes. Further discussion on this subject here:
Sir Charles Sherrington performed the original research on this subject in his work on inhibition of reflexes in the 1800s. Sherrington discovered that cortical control of reflex activation correlated to the evolutionary progression of the animal. More advanced animals have more complex control mechanisms over their reflexes, with primates interceeding the most directly with their innate motor functions. This was studied by sectioning the spinal cord of a variety of animals and then repeatedly triggering automaticities. From this work, it is apparent that one aspect of primate evolutionary progression has been the emergence of more complex control mechanisms, facilitating the dominance of the higher-level central nervous system functions over our innate automaticities.
The upside of this is the conscious control of our actions. The downside is that motor functions that in other animals are automatic and innate, in our species are managed by conscious choices, and we don’t always understand the optimized action. We therefore consequently often use our bodies in ways that are suboptimal and are the end result of a long series of learned responses. The study of optimized motor function, therefore, has utility for our species for improving the efficiency of our movements, thereby minimizing wear and tear and maximizing health and vigor.