How To Outsmart Your Caveman Brain (Part I)

So you're a modern human. I get it. I love my Starbucks and my air conditioning as much as anyone. A client recently told me "you're just, like, a little bit of a hippie" and I think that probably sums it up. While I love the concept of natural, I also love mascara. It's a tough balance but someone has to do it.

The point is, this is not one more article about how everything used to be better in the old days. I don't think that's a complete picture. While our ancestors might have lived in tune with nature, they also died young and lived hard lives.
Just like mascara, I like to cherry-pick the things I appreciate about modern life and make them work with the outdated equipment I'm using called my body. And believe me, it is outdated. Because although our entire lives have been lived in modernity, our bodies and brains are the beneficiaries of slow evolution. Some things about modern life improve our frailties (like antibiotics!) While many others totally mess with us (like sleep deprivation).

So join me on a process of cherry-picking, okay? It's a bit geeky at first. But I think it will be worth it.

Way Back When

By Unsplash
Once upon a time, your ancestor spent most of their time in the business of living. Caring for children, foraging for food, gathering water, building fire... without modern conveniences every day was filled to the brim with simple survival. 

Imagine with me that one day, a single person wanders far from the others to forage. Suddenly, a sound grabs their attention. They look up in time to see the eyes of fierce predator.

Their entire nervous system turns its attention away from foraging to a different survival strategy- the Sympathetic Nervous System. The fight and flight response kicks into gear, and instantly floods their entire body with a cocktail of stress hormones (I like to think of it as rocket fuel because that's how it works in the body). Their heart rate goes up, as does their breathing- all in an effort to quickly transport oxygen to their limbs. Their brain stops thinking about except survival in this moment.

Depending on the circumstances, they fight, flee, faint or freeze. Let's say on this particular day they make a split-second determination to RUN!

Racing as fast as their legs can carry them, their body begins to burn that valuable rocket fuel coursing through their veins. Leaving everything behind, the chase is on!

Let's say, on this particular day, the sympathetic nervous system did its job. Your ancestor outran the predator and lived to tell the tale. When they find safety, they collapse in a heap. Every part of them is trembling as the last of the stress hormones leave their system. Much like other mammals, they shake a little all over. Their brain begins the process of integrating this harrowing experience. Eventually exhaustion takes over as the last of the rocket fuel leaves their system and their body seeks to come down from this intense stress-high. This is the picture of a complete (meaning: resolved) stress response.

Over the course of the next few days they will go on to experience several sleep cycles (undisturbed by glowing screens, artificial light, caffeine or unresolved stress response) in which their REM sleep will continue to process the intense experience. Their days will be spent walking a great deal, further supporting the bi-lateral* stimulus that we now know is necessary to neurological processes (more on that later.).

This is how the human ancestor survived and thrived. This is the recipe handed down to us, perfected over time by evolution. This response allowed us to accomplish two very important things:

1. "Threat Survival" (briefly)- Sympathetic Nervous System

-Completely Resolve This Process-

2. "Peace Survival" (most of the time)- Parasympathetic Nervous System

This formula allowed us to maximize our survival potential on both sides of the human experience. Our ancestors needed to be responsive to threat. But they could not live in that state for long without consequences to the body. So they needed a way to discharge that experience when it wasn't needed. Spending the majority of their waking moments on basic species needs- procreation, water, food and shelter.

 So how does this template of survival match our:

Present Day

Let's compare the entirety of our human ancestry, the formula of survival, to our modern story. 

First, you wake up and consume caffeine (my favorite). This elevates your stress response slightly, which also helps you feel temporarily alert and energized. You get in your car (no bi-lateral* walking) and head into work. On the way to work, you hit traffic (perceived threat in your outdated brain) and are cut off by an angry person (threat). You realize you are late to work when you are half-way there (another threat).

Arriving at work, your boss is angry and her face lets you know it (predator threat). Your same fight, flight, faint or freeze response is activated. Instead of running, you get another cup of coffee and take a seat where you will remain for the next few hours. The entire morning of unused stress responses (and the corresponding rocket-fuel dumps in your body) sit stagnant inside of you while you try to concentrate on the multiple demands for your attention. This unused rocket fuel makes you feel shaky, lethargic and foggy-headed. You try another cup of coffee to see if you can clear your mind and get to work. 

By Unsplash
By the end of the day, you have engaged your Threat Survival response countless times. However, your body has remained immobile through it all. You don't fight, flee, or faint. The most comparable nervous system response is a freeze. Even that is interrupted because your work productivity is still expected. You are not going to fully shut down. The "threats" keep coming- a hostile coworker or family member, a deadline approaching, kids fighting, more traffic.  

As your day winds down, you are tempted by your favorite sedating substance (food, alcohol, pot, sleep aids etc) to "take the edge of" and help you relax. You don't even know why, but your body won't calm without it. You're too exhausted to exercise but too wired to sleep. 
Playing on your phone, you attempt to numb out. Filled with unused survival stress responses, your body takes in all the stimulus around it. The bright lights, constant background noise, stimulants in your body, and unused stress hormones create a cocktail that fights sleep. You finally fall asleep (much too late!) and your body is robbed of the complete bi-lateral processing* of the REM cycles it needs to deal with your day. 

The next morning you will be jolted awake before your brain and body are done processing the day before. You will feel groggy and heavy. No matter, it is time to get up and get dressed and get started. You reach for another cup and wonder why you don't have the energy you used to.

Comparatively, you can see that our modern life is filled with 

1. "Threat Survival" multiple times throughout the day (engaging the Sympathetic Nervous System)

-Unresolved and therefore we are-

2. Unable to engage in "Peace Survival" (the Parasympathetic Nervous System)

Okay, but what does this mean and what can you do about it? I'm so glad you asked. Click here for Part 2 

Until Part 2

*bi-lateral stimulus is just a fancy term that refers to any movement, sound or sensation that alternates left/right in the body. It is a key element of how our brain processes experiences and can be found in the eye movement of REM sleep, or the alternating motion of legs while walking. Other examples include swimming, running and dancing.

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