There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.
Dorothy L. Sayers
Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries)
For human mental health, there is an unfortunate clash between the way our brains evolved to maximise our chances of survival, and the way our mind has developed and evolved to meet the demands of consciousness.
There is a dynamic tension between them and sometimes the two act at cross purposes. The content of the mind can trigger a full-blown, physical survival response, such as a panic attack, that seems to erupt almost out of nowhere. While the fight and flight response to imminent danger, involves the inhibition of conscious thought.
One contributory factor to the development of human mental health problems, is this dissonance between mind and body, which creates a tension between the various survival mechanisms that we have evolved, (which have made such a significant contribution to our survival as a species), and the responses that are generated in reaction to having self-awareness.
This is true for the other side of the coin as well, where, in much the same way that many birds are born frightened by the silhouette of a hawk, we also have innate, programmed responses to various stimuli. The automatic behaviours triggered when these responses affect the pleasure centres, for instance, can result in actions that may not be appropriate in our modern “‘civilised” world.
This is becoming an increasing problem for our species. We are generating these strong emotional and physical responses – responses that were originally developed to suit our former existence as a prey species on the african savannah – to everyday happenings in our lives, often with unfortunate outcomes.
In the twenty first century we are increasingly showing these behaviours in response to internally created worries and problems. So, many of us can generate a full on, fight or flight response, in reaction to a thought or perceived slight, such as not getting a like on social media.
We are a social species and have lived in groups for much of our history. From hunter gatherer clans in the palaeolithic, to the settled farmers of the neolithic, we have lived in family groups, growing our food and interacting with our neighbours in the next farm over. Because of this we have well developed social skills that enable us to live in communities, a way of living that contributes to our general health and sense of well being.
Once we settled down to an agricultural existence, the science of farming lead to greater knowledge about the best choice of seeds, which animals to breed, and improvement of the soil; facilitating a move away from subsistence farming, where the production of surplus crops and other produce, meant that we had an excess of desired commodities that could be traded, or used to buy other services and skills.
When asuch n excess was available it meant that others could specialise in other areas, rather than everyone having to grow their own food. The ability to grow more food with less total effort, lead to greater populations. This enabled a class of dedicated crafts people to come into existence. The agricultural revolution also meant that there was time to spend on other pastimes than just growing enough food to survive. This resulted in an increase in the speed of technological development, initially aimed at making farming easier, and then to help people hang onto their own. This need for self protection will have paid a part in the onset of conflict and war.
People seem to have responded to this by banding together to live in larger communities, but still rural in nature. Towns and cities developed later, out of the need for centralised places to trade our excess for other products, or services on offer from others.
Living in towns and cities meant that we no longer lived in the small multi-generational family groups that had served us so well during our evolutionary history.
These stimuli lie outside the path of our evolutionary development.
This crowded, urban environment meant that we were exposed to situations that were not only protective, there being safety in numbers, but also capable of being seen as dangerous. We would have been exposed to many situations that were outside our normal, previous experience, perhaps evidence of changes in our surroundings triggered by crowded living conditions, and that would have generated a fight or flight response at worst, and a state of high arousal at best.
One of the great benefits of the human mind is the power of its imagination.
Many of these stimuli lie outside the path of our evolutionary development. So we were in a situation where our possible responses to this modern world were limited by our species evolutionary path. A set of systems that were designed to keep us alive in a dangerous world, help us find a mate, and to survive in a hostile environment.
Once we were settled in groups, many of the original triggers for our evolution came under our control. Our technologies enabled us not only to survive, but also to thrive in many different environments, and effectively become the top predator on the planet.
Moulding the very land to suit our needs has become a rapidly escalating contributor to changes in the world, from pollution, to extinctions of many species, and a reduction in the quality of the air and water that we need to survive.
One of the great benefits of the human mind is the power of its imagination. The ability to see a problem and work out a way to solve it has taken us from Africa to the moon, and from smoke signals and yodelling, to the power of our smartphones. The downside to such powerful, future orientated thinking, is an ability to think ourselves into situations that might never occur in real life. This creates a perception of danger that is out of all proportion to the stimulus.
The body’s survival systems become triggered unnecessarily by what are either imagined dangers, or minor ones made worse by rumination. Much of the time this leads to a state of over arousal, with high levels of stress chemicals released into the body, the effects of which have been well documented elsewhere.
The antidote to many of life’s stresses is to live, psychologically, in the past.
The end result is chronic physical illness, such as diabetes, and chronic stress created by the fight or flight response. The resultant states of anxiety, panic, and depression all create further internal mental dangers for us to ruminate about.
Recent research into the brain pathways involved in common mental health problems, had revealed the involvement of many brain areas that developed early in the evolutionary journey. Areas involved with fear, appetite, sleep cycles, and sex have all been shown to be involved in a complex interplay in such disorders.
It has been interesting to see different research that highlights other effects that are almost the mirror image. These effects come from living in a community, meditation, friendships, and exercise – to name a few.
To a great extent, the antidote to many of the stresses produced by our modern, connected life styles involves living, psychologically at least, in the past.
Time to really slow down and smell the roses.