Most of us spend the vast majority of our time adrift in injurious, involuntary thinking. Constantly churning. Wandering in our heads.
Example: You’re stopped at a red light. Are you actually in your car at that red light or are you in your head stewing over, for the umpteenth time, the cheap shot your mother-in-law leveled at you at dinner the previous night? You get home ten minutes later and it occurs to you that you can’t even remember driving home. Sound familiar?
Not all thinking is bad
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all thinking is bad. The ability to think is what separates us from animals. Sitting down with a legal pad and coming up with creative, outside-the-box ideas for increasing your company’s sales? That’s great. That’s what I call intentional thinking.
What plagues humanity is involuntary, compulsive thinking, which causes depression, anxiety, and a whole host of other medical maladies.
It’s about evolution
So why do we all do it? The short answer is we do it because we can’t help it. And the reasons we can’t help it lie in science, specifically evolution.
We humans, Homo Sapiens, have been around for about 200,000 years. For roughly 195,000 of those years we were hunter-gatherers.
What’s significant about this fact? Simply put, our brains evolved to adapt to the environment that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in. It was a nomadic life that involved traveling in bands of roughly fifty people and required total reliance on nature for food and sustenance.
Our ‘see something, eat it’ ancestors
Our ancestors lived in what anthropologists call an immediate return environment (IRE). In an IRE, the decisions humans made resulted in immediate returns. For example, I’m hungry so I’m going to go eat those wild berries. Or, wow, that is one big saber-toothed tiger; I better get the hell out of here! It was a life lived, for the most part, in the present moment. [Article by James Clear on jamesclear.com]
The preceding are examples of reactions to stress and anxiety. Evolution places major importance on reactions to stress and anxiety, not just in humans, but in most species of life. Which makes sense.
Why? Well, let’s take the case of humans. If you were walking around in a forest where you saw a massive woolly mammoth trample your friend to death the day before, you BETTER be anxious with your every step or you could be a dead man. But again, the stresses and anxieties of hunter-gatherer life presented themselves in the here and the now. And our brains evolved accordingly.
From Wanderers to Farmers to Tech Addicts
Then, roughly 10,000 years ago something crucial happened: Humans learned how to plant crops and domesticate animals like cows, pigs, and sheep. What did this mean? It meant no more wandering around in nature looking for food. Now people could live in one place.
This had enormous implications for humanity. Because after around 5,000 years of everybody catching on to this agriculture thing, actual civilizations appeared, first in what is now modern-day Iraq, in approximately 3,500 BC.
With each passing century and millennium since civilizations gradually advanced. Then early in the 20th century, these advancements exploded with the inventions of the car, the airplane, and the telephone.
Fast-forward to the 1980s and we had computers in people’s homes. The 1990s and 2000s brought the internet which meant information and everything else at our fingertips. 2007 brought the iPhone and now we can do pretty much anything from anywhere.
Prehistoric Brains + Modern Problems = Humanity Insanity
What all these advancements of the past several millennia have added up to is the death of the immediate return environment of our ancestors and the rise of the delayed return environment (DRE). Because in the DRE that we live in today our stresses and anxieties rarely come from things occurring in the present. When was the last time any of you was attacked by a bear? [Article by James Clear on jamesclear.com]
No. The stresses of today come mostly from amorphous imaginings of problems that might come about in the future. Will I be able to afford my mortgage if my awful boss fires me? Eighteen-year-old Americans agonize over whether they’ll be accepted to the college of their choice, convinced that if they aren’t, their lives will be ruined. Parents ruminate about whether nine-year-old Johnny will ever be able to make a life for himself because he’s struggling to learn his multiplication tables. Worry, worry, worry.
Evolution did not wire our brains to deal with these kinds of problems.
Well, what the heck, you might be saying. Why doesn’t evolution get its act together and adapt our brains to today’s world? Because evolution takes its sweet time. It took millions of years for our ape brains to evolve into the homo sapiens brains we have now. Five-thousand years is a blip on the screen of evolutionary time.
The fact is that our brains are not much different now than they were 200,000 years ago.
Yes, my friends, we really are just a bunch of hunter-gatherers posing as civilized humans. I think that’s why we feel so peaceful and “at home” when we walk through a quiet meadow or hang out by a lazy mountain stream or some other sublime encounter with nature. Clearly, our brains love that stuff.
It’s all the Agricultural Revolution’s Fault
So long story short, what the Agricultural Revolution wrought all those thousands of years ago was a society of today where we stay in one place and daydream and worry a lot. The result of all this is that most of humanity suffers from some level of chronic anxiety characterized by near-constant involuntary thinking that does us no good.
So the short answer to why we wander off from most of our present moments into daydreaming and brooding is that we have 200,000-year-old brains that are designed for hunting and gathering, not dealing with the complexities of our modern world.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, man, what a bummer. We’re hundreds of thousands of years away from evolution making us happy campers again. Right?
Wrong. Our brains actually can be happy campers again. And soon. I’ll tell you how in my next article.