Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 28, 2023

Our brains are maladapted to the modern world we live in

By WILL MARCUS | October 16, 2014

Our incomprehensibly complex and beautiful brains are the triumph of millions of years of cutthroat natural selection, yet they are horrifically maladapted to the world we live in. For all the millions of years it took to develop us, we developed civilization in a couple thousand. Our ancestors even just 1,000 years ago — let alone hunter-gatherers from 10,000 BC — could never imagine our way of life. We live like Gods. You want unlimited potable water? Turn on the faucet. You want a hot steak dinner? Take it out of the freezer and put it into the microwave. You want an endless torrent of unimaginably engrossing entertainment? Turn on your TV or flip your laptop screen up. Most of us regularly exploit the fact that the development of modern society has surpassed our own biological development by a practically infinite margin. We bombard our ancient, chemical reward centers from the paleolithic era with preposterous amounts of supernormal stimuli for pure pleasure, which unfortunately has some serious consequences.

To understand these consequences, first we must learn about the principle of overstimulation. Overstimulation is any behavior or perception that causes larger than normal amounts of a chemical reward to fill our brains’ pleasure centers; the most common of these rewards is dopamine. Civilization allows many of us to flood our brains' pleasure centers with dopamine and other chemicals many times a day through supernormal stimuli like junk food, pornography, video games, the Internet and possibly even mind-altering substances. Naturally, the pleasure we get from these dopamine rushes cannot compare to any stimuli that can be found in nature. Humans are not the only life on earth that can suffer the ill effects of supernormal stimuli, but we are the only animals that are in a position to experience it regularly.

Many studies have found that animal behavior always favors supernormal stimulation and, even if that behavior is actually incredibly destructive and unproductive. Mother birds have been found to feed blatant wooden decoys with disproportionately huge mouths while their own living, breathing young starve. The bird’s pleasure centers fill with dopamine at the sight of such large, healthy-looking young that they pay no heed to the fact that they are feeding inanimate objects. Moreover, male fish have been found to mate exclusively with two-dimensional cardboard cutouts with exaggerated colors instead of actual fertile females in experiments. The same evolutionary reward center that informs the behavior necessary for survival and successful natural selection is a total liability when any species faces any kind of supernormal stimuli.

Pornography and junk food are very similar forms of supernormal stimuli. They are complete exaggerations of the food and sex that we’re evolutionarily prepared to encounter in nature, and this provokes a similarly exaggerated response in our pleasure centers. To make matters worse, they also both have enormously powerful industries behind them that are in perpetual competition with each other to produce ever more stimulating products. Food scientists meticulously tinker with foods like Doritos to attain the golden ratio of salt, fat and carbohydrates that maximizes the average person's "bliss point." In other words, these corporations give scientists a blank check to create food that causes the largest dopamine release possible, regardless of nutritional value. The end result is a highly addictive snack that probably couldn't be worse for you. Moreover, we all accept that modern food should be addictive. Lay’s Chips still uses "betcha can't eat just one" as their official slogan, showing that one of the largest firms in the junk food industry not only openly acknowledges how addictive their food is, but somehow capitalizes on it as a primary selling point. They wouldn't do this if the public opinion didn't deem "addictiveness" a positive quality in food. Obesity and type II diabetes are climbing at alarming rates in many parts of world, no doubt due in part to the widespread acceptance these supernormal foods that deteriorate our endocrine systems in exchange for just a little bit of pleasure.

It's pretty humbling to imagine that for all the vast intelligence of the human psyche, it is still subject to the same ill-effects of overstimulation as a fish's pea-sized brain. In September 2013, Cambridge University neuropsychiatrist Dr. Valeria Voon took brain scans of men who described themselves as addicted to pornography and found that their brains' reward centers displayed similar changes to those of heroin addicts. So what exactly does one of these damaged brains look like? For the heroin addict, the damage manifests itself as a tolerance to the drug: the more blown out the dopamine receptors are, the more heroin they must shoot to attain the same level of bliss. The porn addict's damaged brain instead requires more novelty and more extreme scenes. As the search for novelty continues unchecked, there will come a point where even young men in their twenties begin to suffer from erectile dysfunction in real life sexual situations. Carlo Foresta, head of the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine, confirmed this when he said that 70 percent of the young men under 30 years old seeking clinical help for erectile dysfunction in Italy self-reported frequent use of Internet porn. As intense as the symptoms of porn addiction can get, there is a way to reverse all the damage: quit cold turkey. 

All over the world, young men and women are opting out of using Internet porn. A certain Chinese forum dedicated to quitting pornography boasts 500,000 members as of this June. The general rule of thumb is that ten times as many people that are subscribed actually read message boards, so that Chinese forum likely commands a 5,000,000 person readership. These types of forums for struggling porn addicts or simply those who wish to opt out are emerging in an ever-increasing number of countries as the world wakes up to all the disastrous consequences of porn addiction that have been thriving under the radar for years.

Almost all aspects of our modern lives that wouldn’t be included under the "Paleolithic" lifestyle are inherently bad for us. Studies have shown that even artificial lights interfere with melatonin production and alter our circadian rhythms. Our sedentary lifestyles present some grave health complications for bodies sculpted by millions of years of evolution to be able to handle insane amounts of physical exertion. For most of human history, sitting in a chair for nine hours a day and surviving would have been mutually exclusive concepts. We just haven’t been built to do it. We are completely out of our element in this world of sensory excess. And it’s not looking like we’ll ever adapt to it while modern medicine and societal norms effectively prevent the barbaric natural selection process from occuring. So because we will not adapt to these new conditions, the only thing we can do is adapt our individual lifestyles.

I suggest that we should all let out our inner Homo erectus as much as possible. In an ideal world this means coming downstairs and spending time talking with your housemates or roommates instead of watching Netflix in your room. This means eating more nutrient-rich food that hasn't been designed in a lab. This means cutting Internet porn out of your life. This means reading more books in print. This means taking on that huge project. This means getting sweaty on a regular basis. This means living life in the manner that millions of years of natural selection designed you to. You just might find that if you’re cognizant of the needs and health of your inner paleolithic cave-dwelling hominid, he or she will fight tooth and nail to get you ahead in life.

Will Marcus is a junior Economics and International Studies major from Austin, Texas. He is the Opinions Editor.

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