When pondering why we have brains many of us are tempted to conjure up all sorts of lofty reasons that grandstand our superior understanding of life and the universe.

But according to neuroscientist and engineer, Daniel Wolpert, we have brains for one reason and one reason only; to produce movement.  And why do we need to move?  To keep ourselves safe from danger.

The simplicity of this gem of an idea got me thinking about how every aspect of our being has evolved to respond accordingly:

Feelings:  The root of the English word ‘emotion’ is ‘e-motere’ which literally means ‘to move’.   In a nutshell, our e-motions evoke motion and we are motivated to move towards things we like and away from that which frightens us.  Scientist Bruce Lipton observed that this movement happens at the minutest level; every cell in our body moves towards nutrition and away from toxins.   So, motivation (having the energy to move) is essentially a question of whether we love life or fear it.  Seems we can’t do both at the same time.

Thoughts:  Thinking is directed at managing risk and when a threat is detected, the brain weighs up situations at the most basic level; ‘do I eat it?’ (move towards) or ‘does it eat me?’ (move away) and e-motions mobilise our nervous system accordingly.   Calm occurs when no movement is needed which is why the brain can only direct its brilliance to complex thinking matters when calm prevails.  If you want obedience in your teams, instil fear.  If you want creative collaboration and inspired innovation, build a culture of trust and then turf in a large measure of playfulness.  Love (loving life) and trust are the building blocks that lay a rock-solid foundation of psychological safety; the space needed for us to think clearly and do our best work.

Behaviour:  When our nervous system is flooded by e-motive impulses, behaviour results.  Threats are dealt with initially by fight or flight but if these strategies don’t work then we freeze. Predators are alerted by movement so – to avoid being lunch – freezing movement is a particularly effective strategy … naturally this requires having control over one’s bowel movements 😊.

Memory:  Wolpert claims that most of us don’t remember much of our childhood because we don’t need to.  What we remember is past events charged with e-motion i.e. events that moved us to feel very happy or very sad.  The emotional charge etches the learning into memory and each memorised event becomes a strategy we add to the toolbox of good or bad habits we use to shift in future.  Catastrophically sad events made us feel powerless mostly because – at that time – we were unable to move.  Any reminder of these past traumatic events can set off an alarm that triggers a potent avoidance reaction in the present, such as freezing.  Updating these adaptive movements (behaviours) to suit our current circumstances is what therapy helps us deal with.

States:  Emotions that persist are called ‘states’ and happiness, anxiety and depression are good examples.  Happiness drives us towards playful, social situations (collaboration) whereas depression collapses us into withdrawal.  The co-existence of depression and anxiety is particularly painful because the depressive collapse is accompanied by our anxious alarm shrieking move, Move, MOVE!  If no discernible threat is detected, we can do neither, so it immobilises us even further.

Social:  Belonging is safety-in-numbers and, as vulnerable human beings, the price we pay for attachment is sacrificing chunks of our authenticity.  Wellness means striking a delicate balance here.  The word ‘persona’ means ‘mask’ and the personality masks we adopt may help us fit-in but – if we veer too far from our authentic selves – we lose sight of our needs.  When our needs are not met, survival signals our internal alarm system to generate angst.   This explains why mindfulness and meditation practices that ground us in our present-day self can be calming and therefore helpful in the treatment of anxiety and depression.

Purpose:  If our system is only about movement, then what’s the point of it all?  Even if we have grandiose ideas about who we think we are, truth is we humans are just ordinary mammals dictated to by our genes and, the purpose of our genes, is to put us on a route-march to procreate.  If you’ve been on the receiving end of too many indescribably bad pick-up lines, you’ll know that some such ‘moves’ are not quite as effective as others.  Swipe left …


Daniel Wolpert’s TED talk about how the brain creates the grace and agility of human motion: