The hunter-gatherer brain versus modern 24/7 society

Let’s start with a little thought experiment. It’s 2023. Aliens attack the earth and kidnap animals to take back to their home planet. They set up a zoo and put the different animals into cages. They’re curious about all the new species and start to carefully investigate their needs, desires, and behavior. Their aim is to make sure the animals feel OK in their new home. That’s why they start building living conditions that are the most natural for them: big spaces, optimal food, and a wide variety of different kinds of stimuli.

One of the animal species the aliens kidnapped from the earth is homo sapiens. The only visible difference to the other animals is that humans walk on two feet instead of four and need to be clothed in the zoo to keep them warm. The humans also seem to want to communicate with the aliens, and actively communicate with each other using their hands and picking up things from their surroundings.

As with the other animals in the zoo, a group of alien scientists starts to build a space that optimally suits the needs of the homo sapiens. They soon realize that humans need a lot of space and are naturally adept at building tools with their hands. They seem to be very active, walking a lot, exploring their surroundings, and making marks on the ground. They also notice that they sleep when it’s dark, approximately 8 hours out of 24, and hold a very regular rhythm.

Now imagine yourself to be one of the alien scientists whose aim is to make living conditions as optimal as possible for humans. What does the space look like? What stimuli are there to keep humans content? What food would you give them? If you decided to set them free, how would they behave?

You might think that this thought experiment is absurd. And you’re right, it is. But the same questions are addressed by zoologists who aim to create the most natural conditions for animals in the zoos of our modern societies.

Even though our physiological needs haven’t changed a bit, our surroundings and lifestyle have changed radically.

Similarly, we tend to forget that humans are animals too. We have an animal brain and special needs to keep our brains and bodies healthy. The brain with which we navigate our modern life – sitting for hours in front of screens while eating processed food – is the exact same brain that we had as hunters and gatherers 12,000 years ago. Even though our physiological needs haven’t changed a bit, our surroundings and lifestyle have changed radically.

As an alien scientist, would you make the humans sit as much as possible, staring at screens, and give them ongoing stimuli from digital devices to get their attention? Would you feed them sugary and fatty food full of additives? Perhaps mess up their circadian rhythm on a daily basis and cut down on their sleep? No, you probably wouldn’t. But we live in a society where we do exactly that.

Woman conducting experiments on a science lab
Woman conducting experiments on a science lab

Our brains and bodies haven’t adapted to our modern lifestyle. They’re still on the savanna. We’ve achieved medical breakthroughs and developed large healthcare systems but we’re still not healthy. Many mental and physical illnesses are on the rise. We’re more depressed and anxious. We also have more attention problems than ever before.

Even though we’ve built cities, developed vaccines, launched satellites, and invented the internet and AI, our brain hasn’t changed a bit. The evolution of a species doesn’t happen in 10, 100, or 10,000 years although everything around us changes. For example, it would take at least 100,000 years for us to be capable of working the way we do today without over-exhausting our brain or being able to multitask. Maybe in the year 202300 we’ll be able to write an email and listen to our colleague in an online meeting at the same time. Sounds cool? Or rather meh – is the skill of multitasking something worth achieving in our evolution?

We’re chronically stressed and live our lives in survival mode even though we have everything we desire within reach. We’ve raised our living standards and life expectancy hugely and decreased a lot of the suffering that has been part of human life throughout our history. Yet, we often find ourselves in a fight-or-flight mode even though there aren’t any acute threats.

Why are we struggling with our health? Because our brains and bodies can’t be healthy in surroundings where our human needs aren’t taken care of. We’re made for moving, not sitting. We’re made for being in nature, not in polluted and cramped concrete jungles. We’re dependent on getting enough sleep, not on staring at screens.

To conclude: if you’re having difficulties concentrating, are struggling with your health and well-being, sleep too little, and don’t take 17,000 steps each day (as hunter-gatherers did on average), you’re not alone. And most important of all, it’s not your fault. We’re highly intelligent in many ways but – during the rollercoaster of developing modern society – we’ve lost the connection to the fundamental needs that make us healthy.

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II. Why the brain refuses to concentrate