Greedy? Lazy? Anxious? – the science of why
Estimated Read Time: 6 minutes
As modern humans we rarely, if ever, question the environment in which we find ourselves. This modern, first world environment is what we have been born into, and what we class as the ‘norm’. This ‘norm’, however, is different in just about every conceivable way to the environment for which we were biologically designed to live in.
By going back in time and getting an insight into the environment in which we are still genetically meant to be living in, you start to see that many of our flaws aren’t our fault (as such). They are, instead, a conflict of our primitive brains, and the modern environment for which we find ourselves in.
Can’t stop eating? Lack willpower when it comes to exercise? Anxious when you meet new people or walk into a new space? All these and many other ‘flaws’ of modern humans can be traced back to this mismatch of our modern environment and primitive brains.
It is, on many levels, paradoxical. In this article I will give you a brief insight into how many of the hardwired traits that have made us so successful as a species are now, ironically, doing the total opposite.
The primitive brain
As I have spoken about in previous articles, just about everything we do is driven by the reward system within our brains. All species, to some extent, have this system. Without it we would have no desire to do anything; all the things that are fundamental to our survival and success, like eating, breeding, communicating, would not happen.
So, to make us act on these necessary desires, our brains evolved over billions of years (before we even became humans) to release happy hormones in the form of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin etc.
We aren’t in control of our own thoughts/actions as much as we’d like to think. We run on a deep subconscious level, often ruled by our primitive, emotional brains. This understanding changed the way I viewed other people’s actions. It made me far more compassionate towards them and is one of the first things I now explain to anyone who comes to me wanting to better themselves.
The power of the reward system is so strong, that even though I now have a good understanding of how my brain works, it still occasionally overpowers me. Leading me to sometimes eat too much, miss a gym session, and be overwhelmed with anxiety. But it is far less frequent than it previously was, and I now don’t give myself as much of a hard time for it! I hope you can have similar success after reading this article.
Greedy you say?
So you think you’re greedy, welcome to mine and just about every other human’s world. Without food (energy) we would not survive, and for most of time it was a scarce commodity for us humans. So, the brain evolved to release happy hormones at the sight, thought, or smell of food.
As if it wasn’t difficult enough for us to say no to biscuits being placed beneath our noses, evolution had another trick up its sleeve. We have a ‘gorge’ gene within our DNA, this makes us eat and eat and eat. This, rather obviously, leads us to gain body fat, that ancestrally would have kept us alive until our next, unpredictable meal.
We now live in a time where food is everywhere, so this system, that once kept us alive, is now making us overweight (evolution didn’t factor in us getting smart).
As if the struggle wasn’t hard enough, food companies spend millions of pounds every year testing what combinations of nutrients (usually processed fats and sugars) trigger the biggest happy hormone response within our brains. They then market these far more than they would any other food. Even the once innocent food group fruit has been genetically modified to be sweeter than it originally was.
Lazy you say?
Willpower, what a wonderful, but wildly elusive word. Have you ever been told “you’ve got no willpower!” as you bail on your planned workout? well, inadvertently, the person shouting that was right. Willpower, in many respects, isn’t a thing. Because your primitive brain usually wins when pitched against it.
Movement means using once valuable energy (calories). So, your brain is hardwired to only want to move when absolutely necessary. Essential movement includes things like hunting for food, roaming territory to check for imposters, gathering firewood etc.
But here’s the obvious hitch; we don’t have to do those things anymore. So, our brains tell us to avoid exercise because it is an unnecessary waste of calories. The more modern, rational part of your brain knows it will benefit you, but the primitive, emotional area of your brain usually has the final say – let’s just stay on the sofa… *grabs biscuit tin*.
Anxious you say?
For most of our existence we were slap bang in the middle of the food chain – we were both predators and prey. One minute we were running after a wildebeest, the next we were running back the other way from an oversized lion! This is why you have a fight or flight system etched within your brain. It is unbelievably powerful, so much so it runs much of your life without you even knowing it.
Your brain is comfortable when in places it has been before, that it knows are safe. In the same way it is relaxed when you are around people you know and get on with (unless you fancy them, then you’re still crapping yourself anyway). Ancestrally, we would have spent our whole lives roaming the same territory, with the same, intimate group of people.
Therefore, meeting new people and going to new places, to your brain, means uncertainty. And however irrational it may seem, uncertainty could mean a potential threat to life. This is why your fight/flight system is often hijacked for seemingly irrational reasons in the modern world.
All is not as it seems
On a broad level, our adaptability, that has shot us up to the top of the food chain, has inadvertently allowed our innate taste for progression to run-away with itself.
Imagine trying to drive a jumbo-jet down the M6 motorway – besides the fact you probably don’t have a pilot’s licence, you wouldn’t be very successful anyway. Why? because a plane was never designed for that purpose. It was designed to be in a totally different environment – the sky. That is the level of disparity between our brain/body, that has not changed for a few hundred thousand years, and this new, modern environment in which we find ourselves in.
So, yes, I am saying we are far more adaptable than a jumbo-jet (good to know, right!). But this reveals something interesting, and what is at the heart of this article – we, on the face of it, have adapted so well as a species. We are nearly eight billion strong, living longer than ever, and are surrounded by all kinds of wonderous technology.
But, scratch below this apparent idyllic surface and you soon realise our hardwired, emotional, primitive brains are not adapting that well at all.
This is worrying for two reasons; firstly, the rate at which we are changing our world is only speeding up as technology advances. And, secondly, the vehicle of human progression doesn’t seem to have brakes. It is an unstoppable beast that is probably going to cause more issues than it solves going forward.
For humans, this probably means a continuing decline in mental and physical health. That sounds depressing I know – but, by being aware of these issues, and making balanced choices, you still have a say on the outcome of your overall health.
My advice to you? strike the balance between enjoying all the wonders the modern world has to offer, whilst still adhering to your primitive genetics most of the time.
So, how do you strike this balance? I could write a whole book on this subject, but in summary:
1. Feed your body how it is meant to be fed – a focus on a whole food, with a sprinkle of chocolate cake and wine. Remembering that weight loss (eating less) and health (predominant whole food diet) are, in many ways, two different things.
2. Move more – we know our hunter-gatherer ancestors walked around 40,000 steps a day. As modern humans we average just 5000 steps a day. So, get out and move more. Ideally, throw some resistance training in there to promote valuable muscle mass too. Fighting against your primitively lazy brain and taking the stairs instead of the escalator will help as well!
3. Socialise – be around other humans, put your phone down, and connect with people face to face. You are a tribal creature, that is at its happiest when around other like-minded beings. Obviously, still embrace alone time and choose your audience wisely.
4. Keep it simple – often stepping away from social media, from watching the news, from any other stimulus of the modern world, can work wonders for your mental health. Although deeply sociable, we are designed to live simple, stress-free lives. We yearn for the simple life because that’s where we originated from.
5. Reduce anxiety – remembering you have the choice to do what you want, when you want. If you think a place or person will trigger your anxiety then avoid the situation. Sometimes social pressure can seemingly take away our right to choose – take back control. Being aware of your flight/fight system is important when you feel your anxiety kicking off – don’t give yourself a hard time, and understand there are very real reasons for it, however out of context they may seem to the rational part of your brain.
Some 300,000 years ago the human brain began to get smart through a chance evolutionary mutation. We became the type of human we still are today – Homo-Sapiens (Latin for ‘wise man’).
From that point on we have continually progressed further and further away from the hunter-gatherer environment in which we are still genetically built for. Within the midst of our new-found intelligence it’s easy to forget that we are still driven by very primitive motives, just like all other creatures.
It is important to note that if you managed to, somehow, revive our caveman ancestors, and bring them into the twenty-first century, they, too, would be susceptible to all the issues we face as modern humans. They, too, would likely be a little rotund, rather lazy, and probably highly bloody anxious.
How strange a realisation that, in many ways, we are consciously making ourselves more unhappy in our incessant drive for progression. Is it possible to be too successful? I think, perhaps, it is. The human species is becoming living proof of that.
My hope, as always, is that by understanding why you do what you do on a primitive, subconscious level, no matter how irrational it may seem, you start accepting your mistakes and ‘flaws’.
All my love,
Sam Jones Fitness