You see, our ancestors, the Homo habilis, spent about 2.8 million years evolving. Their ancestors, the Hominidae, diverged from Gibbons about 15–20 million years ago. In fact, the earliest known fossils of primates are from the Paleocene, around 55 million years ago.1 That’s a lot of evolution and, for the most part, provided a consistent environment within which to evolve – Dangerous animals, rival tribes that might kill you, long gaps between finding food, and sexy tribal women wearing nothing but loincloths.
All of the sudden, about 10,000 years ago, agriculture and civilization appeared. This changed everything. Fast forward to our modern age, with fast food, porn, theme parks, and functioning legal systems – it is clear that our environment is strikingly different from that of our ancestors. Unfortunately, our brains haven’t had a chance to adapt to our new world.
10,000 Years – from the last 55 million years. To provide perspective, let’s imagine that you are in college and have decided to experience a semester abroad in the Netherlands. So, you visit your campus registrar and sign up for a 3-credit language course. You’re learning Dutch, 3 hours per week for 15 weeks. Everything is going as planned. You’re picking up the structure of the language, the cultural norms, and your vocabulary is strong. Out of nowhere, on the last day of class, the professor spends the last 29 seconds of class teaching you Arabic and proceeds to ship you off to Yemen.
You walk out of the airport, into the sand-filled air. It’s hot as hell. You’re wearing heavy jeans, a winter coat and gloves – everything you thought you’d need for the Netherlands. You ask a local resident for the nearest hotel in your best Dutch, feeling a bit of pride in using some complex sentence structure. You’re met with a look of confusion as the man points you to the nearest supermarket – within which you find a wide range of maps and guidebooks, in Arabic script.
Not exactly what you expected for your semester abroad, is it?
You approach your unique set of circumstances in three ways:
- You turn around, walk back into the airport, buy a ticket on the next flight home, and enjoy a Big Mac while you sit at the departure gate.
- You pretend like you’re in the Netherlands, continuing to speak to the locals in your best Dutch, sweating profusely in your heavy clothes. Of course, you don’t find a hotel and don’t make any friends. That night, you find a hidden spot in a nearby children’s park to sleep – attributing your misfortune to bad luck and the bad attitudes of everybody you asked for help.
- You decide to leap into the unknown and make it work. You find a phrasebook, a map with a list of hotels, and some hot-weather clothes that you change into at a nearby public restroom. That night, at the hotel, you meet a Yemeni gentleman who is learning English. Congratulations, you’ve made your first friend.
Options 1 and 3 sounds the most reasonable. Option 2 sounds crappy (although certainly entertaining to anybody watching).
So what does this have to do with your brain’s evolution?
For the past 55 million years, our brain has been taking ‘cave-thinking’ classes. With such an extensive curriculum, our brains are incredibly fluent in cave-thinking. If you put our minds in any pre-historic environment, we’ll speak the language fluently – spotting a patch of berries to feast on and a young, fertile mate (also to feast on).
Our brains, however, are not in a prehistoric environment. Our brains just left the airport into modern-land. So, how do our brains react? Which option do we humans choose – 1, 2, or 3?
Unfortunately, we can’t get on a plane back to our neanderthal village. So, option 1 is out of the question.
Most of us choose option 2. We stroll through our modern world, relying entirely on our cave-thinking mind. We see a patch of berries, and go to feast on them (they are gummy berries in the grocery store, packed with sugar). There, in the next aisle, is that young, fertile mate (in a designer jeans advertisement). So we buy the jeans. As we continue down this path for decades, we find ourselves overweight, broke and decidedly unhappy.
My writing in this blog is fully dedicated to helping you choose option 3. While many aspects of our cave thinking brain can’t be changed, we can learn a series of tools and techniques for mastering life in the our modern world. Thanks to incredible advancements in science, particularly MRI technology, our understanding of the brain is now beyond anything our ancestors, or even our parents, could have imagined. It’s now up to us to learn how to utilize and leverage our outdated brains for happier and healthier living. Through my weekly posts, I will help us get there.