You’ve been scrolling through Facebook on your computer for so long you’re hardly even reading it any more. You decide to close your browser and do something else. So you grab your phone, open up Facebook, and start scrolling.
Sound familiar? How about this one:
You’re at the park with your kids, watching them run around and play. On a bench nearby sit a row of parents with their faces buried in their phones, completely unaware of what their own children are doing.
One more you might be able to relate to…
You get out of bed each morning, barely feeling like you got any sleep at all. You’re practically worthless until that second cup of coffee, and even that only keeps you going until lunchtime. By about 3pm, you’re ready for a nap (but maybe go for an energy drink instead). And it’s like this every day, no matter what time you try to go to bed the night before.
If any of that sounds familiar, congratulations! You’re one of the billions of people living in the 21st Century. Modern society is certainly a marvel of accomplishment, but it’s also a minefield of distractions and unhealthy choices.
This is because, in many ways, our culture has warped the definitions of what’s normal and healthy.
So what do we do about all of this? How do we start to undo some of the damage that our culture has inflicted on our natural biological state? How do we stop feeling tired all the time – or stressed, or confused – and start feeling good?
The answer is to find little ways to hack through the layers upon layers of what our culture has put upon us, and to reconnect with ourselves and our planet on a primal level.
Clearing Through The Mental Clutter
We’re going to explore all the different ways to do this, explain why they work, and show you how easy they are to turn into effective habits for yourself.
You’ll see how these tiny changes – which don’t require any massive investments of time, money, or effort – will make huge changes in your life. You’ll be more present and aware, both at home and at work, and you’ll find more energy without turning to caffeine or other stimulants.
But first you have to understand what we’re up against. Humans have spent the last few hundred years making it harder for ourselves to coexist with nature. We have a lot of relearning to do in order to get back to a relaxed and attuned natural state.
We Were Once Wild
With our incredible technology and sprawling cities, humans definitely stand out from the rest of life on Earth. But that wasn’t always the case – the Stone Age only ended a few thousand years ago (which may seem like a long time, but consider that the Stone Age lasted over three million years and you’ll get a better idea of just how relatively recent that is).
Around the same time we were learning how to make metal (the material, not the music) we were also figuring out how to farm instead of relying on the hunter/gatherer method of feeding ourselves. Those farms generally weren’t what we think of as farms today – it took until the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th Century that the current “factory farming” phenomenon really came into play.
And that’s where things started to take a turn; where humanity started to break away from living in harmony with the planet and instead started acting like we really owned the place, consequences be damned. Exploiting resources, over-hunting and fishing, replacing our ancestral food sources with cheaply produced staples, polluting – at first maybe we didn’t know any better, but none of these activities have stopped now that we do.
All of this has had a profound and permeating effect on our physiology, our psychology, and our connections both to one another and to the world as a whole. We’ve taken millions of years evolving as part of this planet, and thrown it all away in just a few hundred years.
The result is this sort of evolutionary whiplash, where we’ve created a world for ourselves that we’re just not designed to prosper in.
Our food is heavily processed and loaded with more sugar than we were built to handle (not to mention the plastics and other chemicals we’ve been poisoning ourselves with). We’ve made information and entertainment so readily available that we hardly focus on one thing at a time anymore. And we’ve augmented the real world with an artificial system of likes, shares, and comments that confuses our sense of what’s real.
All of this throws our bodies and our minds into a state of perpetual primal confusion, where we may not even recognize or realize just how much we’re struggling to make sense of this modern world.
This leaves us feeling perpetually exhausted and confused, uncertain and unmotivated. And none of that is normal, even if it’s what we’ve become accustomed to perceiving as normal. They are cultural norms, not biological ones.
It is not biologically normal for a human being to require a few hundred milligrams of caffeine just to function before noon. And yet, in our culture, it is totally acceptable.
That’s because we live in a culture where it’s normal not to be healthy. And we don’t just mean the big problems like rampant prescription drug use (and abuse) or the obesity epidemic. We mean the subtler and simpler things, like how hardly anyone gets a good night’s sleep anymore.
It’s because we’ve sewn our society with uncertainty at an instinctual level. The deepest parts of our brains just don’t know what to do in this frantic and fast-paced world. This uncertainty leads to stress, and stress leads to sickness, in one way or another.
Life Without Consciousness
Remove conscious thought, and the human body is pretty much a pile of meat powered by a mixture of chemicals and a dash of electricity, wrapped around some bones to make it stand upright. Remove the bones, and we’re basically talking about a jellyfish.
Jellyfish are fascinating creatures. They swim, eat, and reproduce all without the help of a brain or central nervous system. They make sense of their world strictly through their organic chemistry and (for lack of a better word) subconsciousness.
The human body does the same thing. Burn your finger on a stove and you’ll snap your hand away before your conscious mind registers what’s happening. Hear a loud noise, like a door slamming, and your eyes automatically turn to find the source. They’re basic survival instincts, encoded into the primitive lizard parts of our brains along with countless other functions that keep us alive.
But in this largely artificial world, filled with creations our bodies and minds were never evolved to handle, our survival instincts and natural reactions are in a constant state of upheaval. The “primitive brain,” or amygdala, is bombarded with stimuli it doesn’t know how to handle, and the result is chaos.
The Body Just Wants to Be Happy
Your amygdala’s primary reason for existence is to continue to exist, which means to take care of the basic functions that keep you alive. While the more “advanced” parts of your brain are busy worrying about that thing you said or trying to figure out what to get the kids for Christmas or making up your own words to the song on the radio right now, the amygdala is busy just keeping everything running.
On a highly simplified level it does this through a chemical-based rewards program, the neurological equivalent of one of those science experiments where they teach a rat to push a button and get a little piece of cheese. Do something that keeps the body going, and you get a little neurochemical cocktail that makes you feel good.
It’s why a deep breath of fresh air feels pretty good, and why sex feels great (after all, propagating the species is a pretty important goal for your primal brain). And it’s why fatty foods taste good (they’re high in valuable energy, which made them exceptionally valuable for the millions of years we spent evolving as hunter-gatherers) and so on down the line until we get to the tiny euphorias caused by seeing Facebook likes.
It’s true – we’ve flooded our brain with so much digital clutter that our primitive mind thinks it must be important to our survival, and rewards us as such. Our primitive minds are confused.
All of these behaviors are examples of neuro-feedback loops. Lately they’ve been getting lumped together under the category of “dopamine addiction,” which is actually a bit of a misnomer, though we’ll continue to use that phrase as it’s familiar and not entirely incorrect. (Dopamine is just one of the neurochemicals in play, one that heightens anticipation and thus makes the reward chemicals feel even better when they finally arrive.)
So your brain keeps your body going by rewarding it with chemicals that make it (really your subconsciousness) feel happy. And your body, being just a pile of meat wrapped around bones, just wants to be happy. So when it finds an activity that it gets rewarded for, it likes doing it and wants to keep doing it.
This was a great system for our first few million years on Earth, but it’s now become a bit of a problem. In our next post, we’ll look at how certain companies are purposefully exploiting these neurofeedback loops to foster product addictions (and thus increase corporate profits). But that’s next time.
For now, start building awareness around the disparity between our cultural and our biological normatives. Maybe start keeping a journal of the things we think of as normal that really shouldn’t be. Try to catch yourself the next time you’re mindlessly scrolling through social media, and ask yourself if your primal brain isn’t just getting its dopamine fix.