Social media sites, e-mail, text messaging, internet forums, blogs, and all of the other modern tools we use to entertain ourselves and connect with other people are today an essential part of most people’s daily life, and it’s not unusual to have a huge list of friends on Facebook, a constantly buzzing mobile phone, and dozens of e-mail exchanges throughout the day.
If we get internet trouble for a day or two, lose our phone, or suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we don’t have access to electronic communication devices, we can quickly get a feeling of nakedness and disconnectedness, something that highlights how important modern technology has become to us.
Modern technology provides us with constant connectivity to the rest of the world, but at the same time it has also made us more disconnected from other people than ever before, in the sense that many of us use private transportation to get around, spend most of our days staring at a computer screen, and have largely replaced face-to-face communication with text messages, social media sites, Skype, and telephone.
How does all of this impact us?
Stone Age minds in the iPhone era
From an evolutionary perspective, the situation described above is clearly novel. We don’t have to go back more than a decade or so to see that iPads, mobile phones, and computers have entered into our world at a dizzying speed, and if we turn the clock back further, to our days as hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era, it becomes clear that our environment has changed dramatically in a very short time.
Up until the Agricultural Revolution approximately 10.000 years ago, humans grouped together in small bands who subsisted on wild plants and animals, regularly engaged in physical activities, and had to make do without mobile phones, computers, and all of the other electronic devices we now take for granted. Since hunter-gatherer bands typically were of small size, interactions within the group were face-to-face, with everyone knowing something about the reputation and character of everyone else.
A common saying in the field of evolutionary psychology, an approach in the social and natural sciences that examines psychological structure from a modern evolutionary perspective, is that “Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind”. This quote reflects the notion that there hasn’t been enough time and selective pressure for natural selection to sculpt the human brain into one that is well-adapted to a post-industrial life, and that humans are – to a significant extent – still adapted to Pleistocene (~2.6 MYA-12,000 YA) environments (1, 2).
For millions of years, human brain circuitry evolved to solve the kinds of problems our ancient ancestors routinely faced, such as finding mates, avoiding dangerous animals, and gathering plant foods. Many of the psychological mechanisms that evolved to improve our ancestors’ ability to survive and reproduce in ancestral environments are mismatched to modern environments.
The fact that our brains are “lagging behind” is something that is important to keep in mind in the discussion of chronic stress, social interactions, and mental health, as it helps us understand why a hectic, modern lifestyle can wreak havoc on our health and well-being, as well as how we can adjust our lifestyle so it matches better with our “Stone Age mind”.
While hunter-gatherers primarily interacted and socialized with the small group of people in their band, we can today get the “entire world” into our living room through television, Facebook, Instagram, e-mail, blogs, and newspapers. There are many upsides to having this type of rapid flow of information and communication across continents, and I think most of us would say that modern technology helps enrich our lives. However, I also think most people would agree that modern technology, which provides us with constant connectivity and a bombardment of information, can make us stressed and unhappy if it’s not used appropriately.
Social media sites, text messaging, and other forms of modern communication can be valuable supplements to our social life, but they don’t replace real-life interactions and face-to-face communication. Not just because true physical contact is important, but also because relying too much on Facebook, Instagram, and other virtual communities and networks to communicate and entertain ourselves could negatively impact our well-being and happiness.
A 2013 study that looked at how Facebook use influences subjective well-being over time concluded the following:
On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it (3).
Other studies have shown similar results. For example, a study investigating the relationship between cell phone use, academic performance, anxiety, and satisfaction with life in college students found that increased cell phone use may negatively impact academic performance, mental health, and subjective well-being or happiness (4).
If you’re already depressed, “excessive” cell phone use may be an even worse idea. In a study published just a couple of weeks ago, researchers founds that depressed people who turn to their smart phones for relief may only be making things worse (5). The study concludes…
Findings suggest that depressed people may rely on mobile phone to alleviate their negative feelings and spend more time on communication activities via mobile phone, which in turn can deteriorate into PUMP [problematic use of mobile phone]. However, face-to-face communication with others played a moderating role, weakening the link between use of mobile phone for communication activities and deterioration to PUMP.
Why can modern technology have this impact on us? One answer is that social media sites, blogs, and other online communication platforms give us a flawed picture of the world around us. On our personal profile on Facebook, Instagram, and other media sites we can choose to only share the part of our life we want the world to see (perhaps also stretching the truth a little here and there), thereby creating a picture of ourselves as a lot more happy, fit, and successful than we really are. When you’re scrolling down your Facebook news feed it can often be easy to forget that what you see isn’t necessarily a good reflection of how things really are.
Since we don’t get to see what happens behind the curtains, we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is a lot happier and more successful than we are (6). This can certainly be an issue with friends you meet in real life as well, as most people want to show their “best self” to their family and friends; but at least here you get to talk to and see the real person, not just the online persona the person has “created”.
Blogs, social media platforms, and magazines give us an illusion of increased competition. When so many people out there are seemingly doing so well and the standard seems so high, we might feel like we will never really measure up.
What the internet is doing to our brains
The importance of real-life connections
Studies consistently show that those who have several close friends with whom they can discuss important problems tend to be happier than those with few good friends (7, 8, 9). Although these types of studies don’t always prove a causal relationship – do our friends make us happy or do we make friends because we are happy? – I think there is little doubt that having good real-life friends is important to our subjective well-being.
How many virtual Facebook friends is one good real-life friend worth?
The importance of personal real-life connections also applies to our work situation. A lot of people now work in large, anonymous bureaucratic structures with formal hierarchies, often spending most of their days in front of a computer screen and mostly communicating with colleagues through e-mail and telephone instead of face-to-face. This job situation is clearly novel from an evolutionary perspective, and it has been argued by psychologists that the reason so many people experience dissatisfaction with this type of work setting is that “the human mind still responds to personalized, charismatic leadership primarily in the context of informal, egalitarian settings” (10).
When we compare today’s power structure with that of a foraging band in the Paleolithic, it becomes clear that we have taken a big step out of the hunter-gatherer niche we occupied for most of the evolutionary history of our species. Today, many of the rules and laws we follow – whether it’s at work or in our daily lives – are decided by people we have little to no control over – and perhaps don’t even know the name of. When you feel like you are standing at the bottom of the hierarchy throwing punches to the top in an effort to make a change, without really getting through, it can certainly lead to frustration and a feeling of lack of control.
Reconnecting with the real world
When we compare the social life of our Paleolithic ancestors to the social life of people in today’s industrialized world, there are clearly many differences. Instead of hunting and gathering for food with other band members, many of us now spend our work days in front of a computer, communicating with the world through e-mail and phone, and instead of socializing in groups and spending time around a campfire at night, we stare at a television screen or scroll the Facebook feed on our iPhone.
This is not to say that we should label the hunter-gatherer way of life as a utopian existence, as I think the majority of us would prefer to live in a world where we have easy access to food and medicine, live in comfortably heated homes, and don’t have to spend hours each day hunting for food. Also, there is undoubtedly many benefits of modern technology, one of which being that the ancestral health movement wouldn’t be where it is today if there were no blogs, online magazines, and computers.
The point clearly isn’t that we should sell our mobile phone and stop using internet altogether, but rather that we should set up some rules and restrictions so that modern technology doesn’t rule our life, and nurture and spend time on real friendships instead of focusing on the size of our Facebook friends list. In other words, go off-line now and then and focus on creating our own little tribe or band of good real-life friends. This approach is certainly very ancestral.
Personally, I find that “excessive” use of the internet and social media undermines my well-being and happiness, so I have set up some rules and restrictions for my internet and cell-phone use. I definitely have a lot of room for improvement in this area though, as it can sometimes seem hard to not get pulled into the online world we’ve created for ourselves.
The primary takeaway is that we would all probably be healthier and happier if we organized our social life so it more closely resembled that of the Paleolithic man. In other words, employ the same strategy to social interactions and the use of technology as to all of the other things we talk a lot about in the ancestral health community, such as exercise, diet, and sleep.
Picture: Creative Common picture by Robert Couse-Baker. Some rights reserved.
Note: A previous version of this article of mine appeared in Paleo Magazine, the first, and only print magazine dedicated to the Paleo lifestyle and ancestral health. You can subscribe to Paleo Magazine here!