Scientists recently discovered that anatomically modern humans have existed for approximately 300,000 years. Rudimentary agriculture has been around for less than 20,000 years. For 280,000 years humans had one real job: Kill the animal you’re trying to eat; don’t get eaten by the animal you’re trying to kill.
Changes in human anatomy happen at a glacial pace, which includes the brain’s capacity to adapt to the world around us. It seems apparent that our capacity for innovation has far outpaced our capacity to adapt to that innovation. I am not an evolutionary biologist, nor a neuroscientist, but I think I can reasonably state that psychological/physiological changes over time occur as a response to environmental stressors. Prey gets faster — humans develop better spears. Hostile populations become more aggressive — native populations build stronger walls.
The industrial age is only 300 years old. The information age…less than 100. In a span of time that is nothing more than a speck relative to the sum total amount of time that modern humans have existed, innovation has redefined the world in ways that would have been unimaginable to the average person living in 16th century Europe. Or even to the few remaining indigenous populations currently untouched by the modern world.
What happens when the aggregate number of daily stressors exceeds the brain’s ability to adapt to them? It is clear that a constant hyperawareness of wild animals is in and of itself a more acute stressor than say, a traffic jam. But here’s the fundamental difference: For most of the span of human history, wild animals were one of the very few stressors that the human mind had to process. Weather, illness, and food scarcity covered most of the rest. Except in extreme cases, humans have managed to solve most of the problems associated with those particular challenges. I don’t worry if my children will be eaten by a tiger. It isn’t terribly likely that the flu will kill me. I have some decent options in a tornado. My fridge is full. I am fully aware that many populations are still under constant threat from these types of catastrophes, but that’s a different discussion (though undoubtedly related to some of the complications associated with modernity).
We have exponentially multiplied our daily stressors to a height at which the levee seems to be on the verge of breaking. These stressors are both real (job insecurity, healthcare costs, political uncertainty) and virtual (cyberbullying, misinformation, looking up the causes of headaches). There is also a peculiar phenomenon associated with social media that is an extension of conspicuous consumption: The Facebook home page that features the person standing on a yacht drinking champagne. Or piloting a small aircraft. Or paragliding in Australia. To be clear, these things are all terrific opportunities that anyone should take if they have the chance. Yes, there are countries decimated by famine. Sure, we could probably all be doing more. But that doesn’t mean survivor guilt should prevent people from ever taking advantage of good fortune. The point I am making is that we seem to be trying very hard to portray a life in which every day consists of drinking champagne on a yacht. But that’s not reality (at least for 99.99% of us). The reality is the 40-something divorcee with insomnia at 3am looking at Facebook pictures of people on yachts drinking champagne…while wondering why her own life is such a disaster.
This could be described as a type of cultural disease, or pandemic psychological disorder. More succinctly, it is a smoke-and-mirrors existence:
“If people see me on this yacht, they won’t know that I can’t stop thinking about suicide.” “If everyone marvels at my giant muscles, they’ll never suspect that I let everyone take advantage of me.” “If they see me wearing these medals, it will conceal this crippling depression.”
I am not arguing that we would be better off constantly unloading all of our burdens on total strangers, nor that our Facebook homepage should feature us crying while uncontrollably snorting cocaine. My point is that our collective psychological response to a ceaseless inundation of stressors is becoming pathological, and the ramifications are, to me, obvious: Increasingly vitriolic social discourse, anxiety, ADHD, autism rates, etc. While I am not medically qualified to make mental health diagnoses, I genuinely don’t believe that these assessments are too far out of bounds.
…cont’d in pt. 2.