The Human Brain in the Modern World
Today’s modern world can be a confusing place for human beings. The majority of people live in densely populated cities of concrete (World Bank, 2020), mass communication and social media allow for contact with thousands of people every day, while sources of hedonistic pleasure have been created and supplied for almost unlimited consumption, their only limit of use being human’s own natural exhaustion. Interestingly, in a modern age of progress when everything has supposedly become easier and more comfortable, there seems to be a widespread lack of ability to cope with the complexities of modern social life. According to evolutionary biologists, one key reason is that the human brain is adapted not to modern society, nor even to sedentary agriculture-based societies, but to a palaeolithic hunter-gatherer environment, some two hundred thousand years ago (Grinde, 2002). In other words, “we are navigating our current social and physical world with psychological mechanisms designed to solve problems associated with survival and reproduction in an ancestral environment much different than the one we live in now” (Bennet, 2018, p. 2). In this sense, life in a modern industrialised world creates various mismatches between what the human brain is evolutionarily equipped to handle, and what it is presented with each day. To put things simply, there is a growing literature which adds credence to the belief that human beings’ feelings and emotions, designed to aid in survival and procreation in a primitive environment, do not best serve the modern ends of happiness and contentment.
The goal of this article is to explore the concept of mismatch between modern life and what the human brain’s optimal environment is, and its impact on happiness. The article will be split into two parts: the first one will summarise the concepts of Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), mismatches, and discord. The second section will focus on the effects mismatches and discord have had on happiness in the contemporary world.
The ‘Animal Brain’ in the Modern World
As introduced briefly above, it is estimated that the human brain is optimally adapted to social and behavioural conditions from the palaeolithic hunter-gatherer environment, roughly two hundred thousand years ago (Grinde, 2002). This period is known as the human beings’ Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). John Bowbly first used the term in 1969, stating that “In the case of biological systems, structure takes a form that is determined by the kind of environment in which the system has been in fact operating during its evolution“ (1969, p. 47). Given that human beings have lived approximately 99% of their history as hunter-gatherers (Baddock, 2000), it follows that the evolution of human brain structures has been overwhelmingly influenced by the demands and rigours of life in a palaeolithic environment. To simplify further, the human brain is primarily designed to aid in the functions of survival and procreation in this palaeolithic hunter-gatherer environment (Grinde, 2002).
Bowbly also indicates an important concept: that “only within its environment of adaptedness (EEA) can it be expected that a system will work efficiently” (1969, p. 47). This statement leads to the next concepts: mismatch and discord. As mentioned briefly in the introduction, mismatch refers to the difference between the environment in which human beings currently live and the environment in which their brain and genetics are adapted (Grinde, 2002; Eaton et al., 1988). Examples of mismatch could be anything from electricity and large-scale weaponry, to mass communication and unlimited access to all types of protein and carbohydrates (Bennett, 2018). These are all inventions of the modern world to which the human brain is not evolutionarily adapted. However, not all mismatch is negative. Sleeping on a comfortable bed instead of the floor, or behind a locked door in a house, are examples of mismatch which decrease the stress of modern life (Grinde, 2002). To clarify between positive and negative mismatch, Grinde (2002) uses the term ‘discord’ to refer to mismatches which have a detrimental effect and which cause stress. It has been determined that discord can result in increased chronic illness, as well as increased anxiety and depression (Eaton et al., 1988). Furthermore, It has been posited by numerous scholars (Grinde 2002; Bennet, 2018; Hari, 2019) that discord has an adverse effect on human happiness and wellbeing. Grinde in particular states that “happiness is expected to correlate inversely with the presence of discords […] they act like sand in the human emotional machinery” (Grinde, 2002, p. 35).
A key reason for this is stress. For example, a recent University of Oregon study found that humans experience less stress and better well-being when looking at nature as opposed to a city street (Robles et al., 2020). This is in large part because the human brain is not equipped to cope with the massive overstimulation of urban environments. In the words of the study, ”traffic, neon lights, sirens, and pedestrian-packed sidewalks” constantly redirect our attention and ”leave us mentally exhausted” (Robles et al., 2020, p. 3). When understood in the context of human beings’ EEA in a small tribe surrounded by nature, this mismatch with life in a modern city is understandable. There are evolutionary limits to human’s ability to take in and process information, and cities surpass these limits, leading to increased stress and decreased memory and self-control (Berman et al., 2012).
There are two important points to make about human beings’ current brain structure: that it has ill-equipped humanity to reach modern ends of happiness and contentment, and that it is largely in discord with its modern surroundings.
To address the first point, it should be sufficient to state that “evolution shaped the human brain as a tool for survival and procreation” and that ”feelings were evolutionarily designed to sustain life, not to make life more pleasant” (Grinde, 2002, p. 39). In this sense, it can be argued that many of the feelings which drive human beings on a daily basis are not purposed to achieve happiness, and actually have little relevance in the modern quest for contentment and self-fulfilment. Fear, anger, xenophobia, aggression, and overthinking, all are examples of traits which were evolutionarily beneficial to Paleolithic hunter-gatherers so that they could survive by identifying and reacting optimally to threats: yet when these traits are placed in the context of modern society they stand in the way of attaining the ends of contentment and self-fulfilment which modern humans crave. This is because these emotions were not intended to be beneficial in achieving happiness, but instead to drive humans to be constantly discontent with the present in order to continuously strive to achieve the ends of survival and procreation. In this sense, there is even a fundamental discord between the objectives of the human evolutionary brain and the objectives of the modern society they live in.
To address the second point, that human’s EEA is at odds with the modern environment, is also fairly straightforward. A comparison between the environment of human societies even 20,000 years ago and the industrialised modern world today suggests indeed innumerable differences. Instead of small nomadic bands of 30-50 individuals, the majority of the world now lives in cities of thousands or even millions of individuals (Bennet, 2018). Whereas humans’ distant ancestors would spend their entire lives in close contact with nature, the environment of contemporary people is overwhelmingly disengaged from nature. While the hunter-gatherers of the past led nomadic lives with more physical activity (Eaton et al., 1988), the modern human overwhelmingly lives a sedentary life (Owen et al., 2010). Even the diet that humans’ ancestors used to eat, and to which modern humans are genetically predisposed, is quite different in terms of fat and sugars, without even mentioning the influence of alcohol and tobacco (Eaton et al., 1988). Whereas Paleolithic humans used to eat more lean meat and higher levels of protein, the diet of modern humans in the Western world is lower in protein intake and higher in fat intake (Eaton et al., 1988).
In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari (2019) touches upon various examples of discord in modern society, and how they have led to a rise in anxiety and depression. One important factor is loneliness. Despite living in the most interconnected period in human history, rates of reported loneliness have doubled in America since the 1980s (Murthy, 2022). The relationship between loneliness and depression lies again in human beings’ EEA: being social and cooperating with members of one’s tribe is an evolutionarily useful trait in that it increases chances of survival and procreation. In the words of Hari, “that sense of dread and alertness triggered by being alone for too long evolved […] to push people back to the group” because connection “simply produces better outcomes for survival” (Hari, 2019, p. 92). Interestingly, this push to connect and be part of a tribe actually appears to be more difficult in city environments where there are higher reports of loneliness, suggesting that “it’s the quality of our social relationships that matter — rather than the amount of social contact we have“ (Mechelli, 2022, p. 3). Hari also corroborates the earlier points regarding how being out of contact with nature is a source of discord and a cause of depression and anxiety. For instance, there is substantial evidence that various mental health problems are worse in cities than in rural settings (Gold, 2015), with various other studies proving that moving to greener areas is linked with a decrease in depression (Alcock et al., 2014).
Perhaps most interesting in Hari’s book (2019) are the sections based on how modern work and financial insecurity have led to discord in modern times. Alienation and theories critiquing the division of labour in capitalist society are nothing new and go back principally to Marx. In the simplest terms possible, alienation is the idea that, when a worker becomes purely a cog in a machine with his work and product being directed and taken by the ruling social class, he ceases to be the director of his own action, and becomes estranged from his humanity (Axelos, 1977). In more concrete terms, in 2011 and 2012 Gallup undertook one of the largest studies ever about how people feel about their work: 63% declared that they were not engaged or sleepwalked through their day, while 24% stated that they were actively disengaged (Davies, 2014). Such studies reasonably suggest that modern work is not aligned with humans’ EEA and that there is a mismatch. In terms of alienation this could be because, whereas human beings in palaeolithic societies made tools they themselves could wield and see value in, modern workers are estranged from the product of their labour which becomes the property of another. Secondly, modern labourers are alienated from the activity of their labour: in other words, production is not an activity of free will or self-expression, but instead of compulsion by somebody else. These conditions of labour contradict the palaeolithic environment of production to which our brain is adapted. It would seem that the contemporary vision of work is one which needs to adapt certain aspects of humanity’s EEA, though it will also need to grapple with the realities of modern production.
What is even more interesting about the EEA of humans is how it relates to sociology. Since the structure of the human brain is adapted to optimally perform and socialize in small groups of 30-50 individuals (Bennett, 2018), the rapid population growth and interconnectedness of the world in the 20th century have presented deep challenges to problem-solving capabilities which are adapted to much smaller communities. Put rather pessimistically by Bennett, “the EEA did not design efficient mental machinery for solving problems involving large groups of strangers we will never meet or see” (Bennett, 2018, p. 3). Reinhold Niebuhr, in his classic Moral man and immoral society (1932), also points to mismatch and discord as a deep sociological issue. He states that “the dependence of ethical attitudes upon personal contacts and direct relations contributes to the moral chaos of a civilization, in which life is related to life mechanically and not organically” (Niebuhr, 1932, p. 26). In this sense, Niebuhr relates sociological questions such as war and xenophobia to the inability of the human brain to adequately appreciate the situation of other human beings outside of our small in-group. Again, a distinction is drawn between the EEA of human beings and their modern environment, between the small groups human brains are accustomed to and the modern cities and states, so that a contradiction arises. For Niebuhr (1932), the question is how morality and social equality, achieved in intimate primitive hunter-gatherer societies with minimal coercion, can be adapted to large and distinct communities such as the modern nation-state and the international community.
Though all the preceding information might paint a dreary picture, there are relatively clear recommendations on how to better align daily lives so that there is less discord, and consequently, more happiness. Veenhoven (2000) recommends aligning one’s live-ability with the environment to limit discords, which could include such actions as more exercise, better diet, more exposure to nature, and limiting other unhealthy and unnatural behaviours. Hari presents various antidotes for the issues detailed in Lost connections (2019), many of which correspond to discord avoidance, such as considering happiness as a social pursuit, an end which is better achieved through social means instead of through a central focus on the individual, which is emphasised in the West. Hari suggests social prescriptions, tasks which reconnect people to meaningful pursuits and communities, as a means to overcome anxiety and depression, as opposed to the approach of prescription drugs prevalent in the West. This remedy focuses on the idea that people’s health and wellbeing are determined not by chemical imbalances in the brain, but by social and environmental factors, primarily those associated with the human brain’s EEA.
In summary, there is a growing sense that life in modern society is at odds with human beings’ optimal and normal living environment. Whereas humans’ social and behavioural characteristics are designed for survival, procreation, and cooperation within small intimate communities, the average individual today living in Western industrialised nations is living in large, impersonal societies and seeking self-fulfilment and happiness. It seems clear that the human mental machinery, produced as a result of tens of thousands of years in small hunter-gatherer societies, has not adequately prepared people for large-scale cooperation necessary on a societal level, nor the complexities and rigours demanded by modern social life in large cities. Similarly, the infiltration of technology into all aspects of modern life will also be challenging, given its ability to easily manipulate and overwhelm several basic brain and behavioural responses, and our lack of adaptation to it. It remains clear that being aware of how the modern world can create discord and adversely affect us, and attuning lifestyles more towards natural states and environment, will be a defining determinant of wellbeing in the modern and future world.
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