Travel & the Brain

Monkey Puzzles of Pucon: The Oldest Tree in the World and our Ancient Brain

In Arizona, Australia and some parts of Europe, you will find fossilized remains of Araucaria araucana – the Monkey Puzzle tree – once the fine fodder of dinosaurs nearly a quarter billion years ago. But high up in the Andes in small pockets of Southern Chile, these botanical totems are alive, some almost 1200 years old, like relics from the distant past. They are the oldest living trees on earth and gazing up at them is like looking to the stars, realizing that the light you are seeing has taken thousands of years to reach you.

The longevity of this species has lead some to describe it as a living fossil. It is also the national tree of Chile.

This long history (but also their unusual parasol-like appearance as a result of the seasonal snow which trims their branches at the waist) has brought these conifers mythic status. Sadly, they are now endangered, but public fascination has managed to galvanize conservation efforts and there are several protected parks that you can visit for an encounter with the Monkey Puzzle. Here you will also spot the young saplings, their branches forming maze-like protrusions, giving them their colloquial name.

The last remaining forests are spread out predominantly over 5 protected regions: The Nahuelbuta, Conguillio, Tolhuaca and Malleco national parks, as well as a private reserve called Santuario el Cani. Scroll to the end of the page for information about the El Cani hike from the nearby town of Pucon. Perched alongside a giant shimmering lake beneath the Villarrica volcano, smoking steadily from its conical snow-cap, Pucon is somewhat of a jewel. It is famed for adventure sports – ascending the volcano, for one – but we opted for the easy ride and instead visited the Termas Geometricas hot springs. Utter steamy, zen-sational magic! Scroll to the bottom for details and info on how to get there by public bus.

Perhaps I was a tree in my former life? I don’t know, but bearing witness to a mighty shrub brings me the same delight as spotting a leopard in the bushveld.

Ancient in both age and form, the Monkey Puzzle seems out of place in these modern times. Looking up at them, I lapsed into introspection. We are not so radically apart from the world of this species. We too bare ancient scripts within us, in the primitive parts of our brains that bare striking resemblance to other animals – the subcortex – that grey bundle of nuclei hidden below the convoluted cortical tissue that gives the brain its brain-like appearance. With an untrained eye, you’d have a hard time distinguishing between the subcortical brain of a pig and that of a young human if they were lain out bare in front of you.

The influence of these ancient brain structures on our mental life is a greatly debated topic in the neurosciences, for if they exert profound and fundamental effects on our consciousness, then we have to accept that “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” – Charles Darwin. And indeed what we know from decades of careful scientific research, is that our shared heritage with other “lesser” animals is, for the most part, a heritage of emotion. Feelings and drives, exactly the “stuff” of minds. This is your subcortical brain in action.

Not convinced? How would you imagine a child born with no cortical tissue to behave? The cortex is argued by disbelievers to be the seat of not only our intellect but also our feelings. Its not a stretch then to assume that the child without a cortex would fail to develop intellectually. But, as powerful evidence of the subcortical foundations of emotions, reports of “anencephalic” (without cortex) children show that they are able to develop a rich and nuanced affective life, displaying joy in response to nurturance and rage when their needs are not met.

To follow from Darwin’s famous quote, the “kind” that binds us with our fellow earthly creatures is therefore one of emotion. In the field of affective neuroscience (affective means emotional feeling), a basic emotion is like a brain programme that has consciousness-creating affective properties. They are programmes that are built into your brain, maturing over time but encoded in your genetic make-up. We can be sure that they are “in-built” or “hard-wired”, because electrical stimulation of specific brain sites has been shown to elicit unique responses in animals. These responses require no previous learning and they have an emotional charge – it is clear that the stimulated animal wants something. It becomes motivated.

Rigorous research on animals has shown that there are at least seven different emotional systems within the paleomammalian brain. Stimulation of one such site makes an animals suddenly come to life, curious about its environment and exploring every nook and cranny. This is the SEEKING system. Another is FEAR. The rat might whimper, it might flee to safety or freeze in fright. Follow this link for a basic overview of these systems. You should be able to easily recognize their influence in your day to day lives.

What, then, makes us distinctly human? This remains a divided issue in the neurosciences. Many believe that it is consciousness that marks the essential difference between humans and animals. But would you call an anencephalic child unconscious? Un-human? Certainly not, because the core of our consciousness derives from the subcortical brain and though it is indeed elaborated on and abstracted into symbols in very sophisticated ways by the neo-cortex, it is this elaboration and not consciousness itself that sets us apart.

Studies have shown that monkeys can detect patterns like humans, but only humans show intense activation in an additional brain region called the inferior frontal gyrus. This brain area is involved in translating actions into symbols to produce language and is much larger in humans compared to other species.

But among some, scientists and lay thinkers alike, there is a persistent reluctance to accept that animals have genuine affective lives. It is believed instead that a cowering pup, displaying all the telltale signs of fear, is not afraid at all, but simply displaying “fear behaviors”. What about a cow facing the abattoir? It would be nice to believe that cows and pigs and chickens and every other farm animal that makes its unfortunate way onto our dinner tables has zero capacity for pain or distress. It is easy to see why such opinions hold strong even in the face of definitive science and it is likely that such deep-seated mindsets were consolidated culturally thousands of years ago through biblical teachings in which “man” (and not rabbits or cows or dogs) was reserved a very special place in God’s plan for the earth. A convenient untruth.

It is exactly these convenient untruths that have corroded our empathy towards the wilderness. The Monkey Puzzle trees may be on their way out, but in all of us, our monkey brains are there to stay.

Some information about the el Cani hike from Pucon.

This hike involves a rather brutal initial 1.5 hour climb, but it ranks high up on my list of spectacular and enchanting trekking experiences. The Monkey Puzzles aside, the vista from the highest peak is a panorama of volcanic cones and the trail, marked by wooden emblems, invites you at each check-point to reflect on aspects of the natural environment. At “Estacion Silencio” (silent station):

“You are under the cathedrals of the Coigues, they are very important for birds that nest in their hollows… Take a minute and listen to the life of these woods.”

How to get there: Catch the bus (700 CLP) to Pozones termas from Pucon town with Caburgua Buses (corner of Uruguay street, in front of the JAC office). Buses depart at 7am, 8am, 10.30am. I wouldn’t suggest leaving later than that. At the ranger station you’ll need to pay 4000 CLP entrance fee and you’ll get a fantastic map with information about various plant and animal species. Depending on your pace, bank on 6 hours for the round trip, excluding the bus ride.

Information on how to get to the Termas Geometricas using the public transport bus from Pucon:

The entrance fee is pretty hefty at around 25000 COPS. It is worth every penny but this means that you should try save some cash by taking the public buses and also make sure you go early enough since the journey takes about 2 hours. Try aim for departing Pucon at 10am. Take snacks and cool drinks for lunch. There is a cafe but it is pricey.

From Pucon catch a local bus from the main terminal to Villaricca. (about 700 COPS). From Villarica, at the same terminal, catch a bus to Coñaripe (700 cops). From Coñaripe you will need to take a taxi, since the hot springs are 16km further into the valley. You should be able to organise a return ride for about 15000 COPS. Note that the last bus from Coñaripe to Villaricca is at about 4.15/4.45pm. It is very important to ask the bus driver about last bus times when you get off in Coñaripe.