5. Why hunter-gatherers actually lived longer
What brought this to mind was this quote from Christopher Ryan on his podcast concerning how the perception of time changes when you're traveling:
"That movement of time is so heightened when you're traveling. And when you're not traveling you can almost ignore it because one day is like the next, like the next, like the next. And then you look back and you say, 'Holy shit, it's been four months since I got here or five months since I got that raise or..?' That doesn't happen when you're traveling."TS1 13:52 - 16:24
"When I was traveling I often timed my movements with the moon. So I'd say, okay, for example...I remember I was in Kashmir and I wanted to...it was a full moon. Kashmir is in northern India up in the Himalayas. It was a full moon and I was in this place ... Dal Lake, amazing, Srinigar.
Anyway, I wanted to be in the Taj Mahal at the next full moon. And I did. I timed it, I took the different buses and trains and worked it out so I'd be in the Taj Mahal for the next full moon in Agra."
"And I remember saying, 'Holy shit, it's been one month? Only one month? It feels like years!' Because of all the novelty, all the newness, all the things that have happened, and the people I've met, and so on and so forth."
"So travel stretches time. Novelty stretches time. Because time is a measure of change. That's all it is. Time doesn't exist in a vacuum. If there's nothing there, nothing changing, time stops. There is no time. Because how else do you measure it? You can only measure it by change. So if nothing changes there is no time. And if a lot changes, time slows down to pack it all in. "
"That's the secret of experience in my opinion. That if you have a life full of change, full of novelty, full of interesting things, full of risk; because those things don't come without risk, you live longer. I don't care if you die when you're twenty-seven. You live longer than the person who gets up and goes to work and puts in their seventy years or eighty years and then croaks. You've lived longer. Not only more interesting, not only better, but actually longer, because time stretches for you."
If we accept the fact that a person can die earlier and yet live longer, this gives us a whole new perspective. Here’s another rumination on the topic:
I was thinking about, like, how it...journeys seem to take longer when you're not sure where you're going. The journey back always seems so much shorter. When you know where you’re going, then you’re not focused on the uncertainty of it. You’re not wondering where it is; you’re not wondering how much further [sic] it’s going to be. You know how much further it going to be, and so you don’t think about it and it ends up taking much less time. Seemingly. Subjective time.
And then I was applying that to life, and the travel years, and the years now where I'm doing the same thing every day. I've talked about that before - how this idea that when there's a lot of variety and surprise and unexpected elements in your life, that life seems to take longer, it seems to last longer because time really is a measure of change. And so if there's nothing really changing in any tangible way in your life, it sort of seems like time stops in a way. But you're still aging; you're just not feeling it the same, you know.
I mean, I guess it’s like the difference between floating down a calm stretch of river or shooting the white water. You’re much more alive and much more aware of what’s going on in the white water than you are when you're just floating down a lazy river.
I've been reading this book called ‘Antifragile’ by Nassim Taleb. It's interesting; he's a very combatitive guy, obviously. He wrote The Black Swan as well...but he's talking about randomness and how randomness actually makes a more stable, robust, antifragile system. And he and I are thinking along the same lines a lot in terms of the modern world,and how the modern world is set up to protect us from randomness, and yet randomness is what we need in order to feel alive.
So it's as if we've dredged all the rivers to remove the rocks, the obstacles, the white water. And so now the rivers, we've dammed them all quite literally, and so the rivers are all placid and sluggish and slow moving, and as we float down these rivers we're safe, but were also zoned out, 'cause nothing's happening. Were bored. So we take our antidepressants and we get our silly little hobbies or whatever. Kill time. Think about that expression 'to kill time.’ No, time's killing you, man.
Anyway, I thought I'd read a little passage from the book I found interesting. He says:
'If I could predict what my day would exactly look like I would feel a little bit dead. Further, this randomness is necessary for true life. Consider that all the wealth of the world can't buy a liquid more pleasurable than water after an intense thirst. Few objects bring more thrill than a recovered wallet lost on a train.'
‘Further, in an ancestral habitat, we humans were prompted by natural stimuli, fear, hunger, desire, that made us work out and become fit for our environment. Consider how easy it is to find the energy to lift a car if a crying child is under it, or to run for your life if you see a wild animal crossing the street.’
TS2 - (7:20 - 12:22)‘Compare this to the heaviness of the obligation to visit the gym at the planned 6pm and be bullied by some personal trainer, unless of course you’re under some sort of imperative to look like a bodyguard. Also consider how easy it is to skip a meal when the randomness in the environment causes us to do so because of lack of food, as compared to the discipline of sticking to some 18 day diet.'That's the truth. So much of what we're trying to do in the modern world is to replicate the randomness of the ancestral world. And that, my friends, is the thought I will leave you with...
It turns out that there is actual science behind this.
By fortunate coincidence, I happened to catch this podcast with Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman (I’ve added info from another podcast as well). The book is about the Flow state, and specifically what its effects are, what the neurobiology behind it is. He does this by studying action-adventure sport athletes, particularly in natural settings (snowboarders, surfers, mountaineers, etc.). He describes flow as:
"Flow is technically defined as an optimal state of consciousness. So this is a state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. And most people have at least a passing understanding of flow. If you've ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation , [or] you get sucked into a work project where everything else vanishes, then you've tasted the experience."BX 1:55
"In flow attention gets so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Your sense of self, your sense of self-consciousness, they just disappear completely. Time dilates. So sometimes it can slow down like that freeze frame in a car crash, or it can speed up - five hours will pass by in five minutes. And throughout all aspects of performance, metal and physical, go through the roof."
Kotler describes how the perception of time changes in flow and the science behind it:
"What is happening in the brain during flow is the brain is performing an efficiency exchange at a very basic level."AOC 4:45
"So your brain is an energy hog. It is 2 percent of your mass but uses 20 percent of your energy. So the first order for the brain is always, 'how do I conserve energy?'"
"Conscious processing is very slow first of all. It's also very energy expensive. So what is happening in flow is our need to pay more attention - as our focus goes up, the brain performs an efficiency exchange. It turns off the conscious mind; it turns on the subconscious mind."
"Now, to do this, huge swatches of the brain are turning off. The technical term for this is called transient, meaning temporary, hypofrontality. Hypo is h-y-p-o, it's the opposite of hyper; it means to slow down, to deactivate. And frontality refers to the prefrontal cortex - the part of your brain that's right behind your forehead that houses all of your cognitive functions."
"So to return to your original question, why does time pass so strangely in flow? Because researchers now know that time is calculated all over the prefrontal cortex. And when parts of the prefrontal cortex start to shut down, they wink out, the brain can no longer perform this calculation. So we can no longer separate past from present from future, and we're plunged into what researchers call the deep now."
In addition, flow causes people to feel a mystical sense of oneness with everything:
"If you stay in that flow state for long enough, the deactivation can go out of your prefrontal cortex and into your other lobes and if it goes into the right parietal lobe what happens is - there is a part of the right parietal lobe that help you orient in space - its nickname is the object association area, OAA, and this helps you navigate through a room. So people who have brain damage or a stroke to this area, they can’t sit down a couch because they don’t know where their leg ends and the couch begins.BX 22:00
In flow, this portion of the brain, in deep, deep flow can totally shut down. When that happens, you can no longer separate self from other. So the notion of becoming one with everything, that oneness that spiritual traditions talk about, that experience of unity, cosmic unity, that's a real thing. It's a part of your brain that differentiates self from other turning off. And at that moment in time you feel one with everything."
Kotler describes the other changes taking place in the brain:
"In flow, attention is going up, so you're taking in more information per second. This is happening because norepinephrine and dopamine massively jack up attention, they amplify attention."AOC 10:30
"Now simultaneously they do something else that's really cool. They lower signal-to-noise ratios in the brain, which is a fancy way of saying they accelerate pattern recognition - our ability to link ideas together. So not only are you taking in more information, the norepinephrine and dopamine are helping you make connections between those ideas, usually close connections."
"Anandamide, which is another chemical that shows up in flow, increases lateral thinking which is our ability to make connections between tangential ideas. So what you see here is that the neurochemistry of flow literally surrounds the creative process. This is why people report being seven times more creative in flow. Even cooler...that heightened creativity outlasted the flow state by a day or two which suggests that...it may actually teach us to think more creatively overall."
These neurochemicals in the brain are highly addictive. It turns out that many of the addictive drugs that plague society are just stimulating the neurochemicals which are naturally activated in the flow state:
"As you pointed out, these are fundamental neurochemicals. they are very, very addictive. On top of that, flow is all about mastery, passion, purpose, all kind of these fundamental human motivations. So by playing with flow, you're playing with very fundamental neurobiological properties that evolutionary biology shaped us to have. You have to know what you’re doing because if you find yourself in a situation where you're getting into fast flow states right and left and then you’re cut off from them for whatever reason - you switch jobs, you have kids, you get sick, etc. etc. Being cut off from flow is the same as being denied drugs."AOC 13:00
"Okay, so if you want it put in drug terms, so I listed five neurochemicals. We won't talk about all of them, but one of them is dopamine. When you snort cocaine which is widely considered the most addictive drug on earth, all that happens is dopamine floods the brain , and then blocks the ability to reabsorb that dopamine so you get the effect for longer. Every one of those five neurochemicals has a drug analogy - norepinephrine is speed, serotonin is ecstasy, etc. etc."
"You couldn't cocktail those drugs on the street, you would end up drooling or dead. Flow cocktails them naturally and perfectly, gives you the best of all those highs in a sense. Usually addictive. Very, very, very potent, very powerful. You have to ...there is a flow path, there is a way to work with this, but you need to have a fundamental understanding of what flow is, how it's produced in the body, how we can create it. There are 17 flow triggers and there’s a flow cycle. And you need to know all these things to start playing with this, otherwise you’re going to find yourself in a really bad, dark place."
And flow is not just an individual state, very close groups working together can achieve the state collectively:
"So there's a group version of flow, a shared flow state. if you’ve ever seen a fourth quarter comeback in football, that’s group flow in action. If you’ve ever taken part in a great brainstorming session, that’s group flow in action."AOC 17:33
Many of the chemicals released in flow are important in group bonding. Generosity and service to others actually enhances flow (but not consumerism and selfishness):
"Some of the chemical that show up - you get dopamine and norepinephrine, these are performance enhancing reward chemicals. You get endorphins. You get anandamide; you get serotonin. All performance enhancing reward chemicals, but they all serve social bonding functions. Norepinephrine and dopamine, that's romantic love essentially. Serotonin is a social bonding chemical. Endorphins is maternal love in children and familial love and friendship love in adults, and anandamide is essentially the psychoactive released when you smoke pot and it gives you that 'Bro, I love everybody' sense. So all of these chemicals really expand social bonding."BX 16:44
"So the important thing about altruism is, not only does altruism put you into a flow state but it expands empathy. In the flow state itself it expands empathy. Psychologists talk about this and they say that people are more 'complex' on the other side of the flow state. 'Complex' is a fancy way of saying you're fundamentally altered, and one of the ways you're fundamentally altered is by becoming more empathetic."
You achieve flow states by activating various flow "triggers." According to Kotler, these triggers consist of:
3 environmental triggers
3 psychological triggers, and
10 social triggers.
"Who are the best at producing flow in their lives have done a very simple thing. They've packed their lives with these flow triggers. Anybody can do this. so let's talk about a couple of these flow triggers. Before we get there, let's give people some understanding of why I talk about action adventure sport athletes in Rise of Superman, because I use action adventure sport athletes who are very good at getting the flow as my case studies in Rise. So when I talk about these triggers first I’m going to talk about how the action adventure sport athletes have used them, and then ill translate them for other people..."AOC 17:49
"The happiest people, and more specifically, the people who have the greatest amount of life satisfaction, overall life satisfaction, meaning, purpose, those kinds of huge motivators, have the most flow in their lives."
In a slideshare presentation online, Kotler lists the flow triggers:
- Intensely focused attention - long periods of interrupted attention; deep focus.
- Clear Goals - know what you're doing and why you're doing it - the point.
- Immediate Feedback - An extension of clear goals - clear goals tells us what we're doing, immediate feedback tells us how to do it better.
- High Consequences - danger lurking in the environment, elevated risks drive focus.
- Rich Environment - an environment with lots of novelty, unpredictability and complexity.
- The Challenge/Skills Ratio - the challenge needs to be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table.
- Deep Embodiment
- Serious Concentration
- Shared, Clear Goals
- Good Communication
- Familiarity - everybody has a shared language and is on the same page
- Equal Participation - all participants have an equal role in the project.
- Risk - Potential for failure
- Sense of Control - combines autonomy and competence.
- Close listening - fully engaged in the here and now.
- Always say yes - interactions should be additive more than argumentative
- Creativity - creativity triggers flow, then flow enhances creativity.
Flow might be the most desirable state on earth; it might also be the most elusive. Seekers have spent centuries trying yet no one has found a reliable way to reproduce the experience...except action and adventure sport athletes. Quite simply THE ZONE is the only reason these athletes are surviving the big mountains, big waves, and big rivers.And now we get to the crux of my argument. If you read the above list, you realize that all of these conditions existed for all people in the Paleolithic Era! Essentially every human being on earth was an action adventure sport athlete! There was no other way of living. They were living this way twenty-four hours a day for their entire lives.
Look at some of the triggers - Risk taking. A sense of control. Deep focus. Camaraderie. Altruism. Familiarity. Shared goals. A rich environment full of novelty and unpredictability. These were all the things that people in hunter-gatherer societies experience all the time.
A great example of the kind of environment our ancestors lived in comes from an interview with author Robert Greene on The Drunken Taoist podcast. Greene describes his book Mastery:
Robert Greene: "Yeah, I cover...So I have like an Einstein, the extreme, but then in the book I talk about these Polynesian navigators to show you that these are the extremes from what we consider very primitive culture to the most sophisticated. And essentially these are navigators, a system of navigation, that goes back maybe 3,000 years, somewhere in that vicinity. People who were basically [using] stone age technology using canoes navigating vast spaces of the ocean. They live in [a] mostly water environment. And how they conquer that environment. Not conquer it, but learn how to navigate it without any tools, no instruments, zero, and all of the insane dangers. And it's through using what the brain is intended for and using their whole bodies in this process..."TDD 52:00
Host: "Including their giant balls.."
Robert Greene: "You know about that. I don't know if I've mentioned that. That's true, even that part. They're lying on the bottom of their vessel and using their testicles to feel where the ocean is coming, you know, things like that, to the point where I describe that they can navigate this water world as easily as a taxi driver in London. That is real human power. That is really using the brain in an incredible way."
"And so, part of the book is a little bit of a dig, unfortunately, or fortunately, at our technological[ly]- obsessed culture. As if the only thing that's really of value is what we can do through machines. But in fact, the brain is this insanely amazing...by far greater than anything that Apple could produce. And let's sort of celebrate that; the potential of what the brain can do as opposed to what we can produce technologically."
Now that's mastery.
A good description of the flow state comes from Chuang Tzu:
Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.It's no coincidence that Kotler found flow most accessible by action adventure sport athletes. Most likely flow is what kept our ancestors alive in harsh environments over millions of years and allowed humans to do extraordinary things like settle the islands of Polynesia in handmade boats across thousands of miles of ocean, or settle on the tops of mountains, or run hundreds of miles at a stretch. And as Greene pointed out, relying on technology takes us out of that mastery so we never get a chance to develop our innate human abilities.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”
The other thing that immediately jumps put at you is how few of these conditions exist in our present-day environment. Our daily lives in modern industrial societies are the antithesis of flow. We do the same pointless tedium day after day. Our lives are boring and predictable. We have no sense of purpose. We do not have close friendships or a common language. We are isolated from other people. We told to maximize our self-interest. We are not challenged. We have a lack of engagement. We are not equal participants in anything. We don’t get immediate feedback or see the end result of our work. We have no creative outlet. There is no risk - in fact we've totally insulated ourselves from risk in every aspect of our lives. As Ryan noted above, risk and unpredictability are necessary for us to feel alive.
And here is the point - our safe, predicable, isolated, boring, long lives are not making us happy. Because we need risk. We need novelty. We need unpredictability. We need to be challenged. These are the things that make life worth living. Is it any wonder that addiction is rampant in modern society? We want to get those chemicals that we no longer get naturally, so we take drugs to stimulate them. As Kotler pointed out, every neurochemical in flow has a drug analog. We're trying to get back what we no longer get from our environment by taking addictive drugs, drinking, risky behaviors, etc. Is it any wonder so many of us are on antidepressants? Is it any wonder that in the midst of all this so-called comfort, we are so miserable that suicides have reached epidemic proportions?
Being denied this flow state is driving us crazy. We seek it out in unhealthy and destructive ways. Note how the most creative and vibrant people are usually the ones most attracted to drugs. They are the most human of us, but they are cut from something we need as badly as our body needs vitamins and minerals. How much of our social dysfunction is due to this? Is flow as necessary as food and water?
And look at the results of flow. A loss of self. A oneness with everything. A greater sense of purpose. More empathy. A plunge into the eternal now. This is what all the great spiritual traditions describe as the transcendent reality. We are naturally seeking this out as well. This is the state we are supposed to be in. In the flow state, we achieve this spiritual state of oneness providing us with a tremendous sense of well-being. Note that altruism and service to others increases flow. Yet we're constantly told to buy and consume. We are told to accumulate stuff rather than experiences. We are all made into competitors and pitted against one another for everything every single day in our modern societies.
Note also that people are more 'complex' after flow. Don't people seem awfully ‘one dimensional’ and shallow to you today? Maybe that's why. Note that empathy increases in flow. Is it any wonder we have no empathy for other people anymore? You can see it in our politics. Studies have shown that empathy is actually declining in younger generations. A study of 14,000 college students found that today’s young people are 40 percent less empathetic than college kids from 30 years ago. Maybe this is why we feel like isolated individuals with no connection to one another. Our selfish consumerist society is the opposite of what makes us happy and spiritually fulfilled. The science proves it.
Maybe that’s why hunter-gather societies are also characterized by creativity, spirituality, empathy, deep social bonds with others, generosity, spontaneity, egalitarianism and altruism as opposed to control, dominance, hierarchy, obedience, isolation and violence. But note that these do not happen without risk. Risk is a price that must be paid, and yes, when you experience risk you do have a chance of dying younger. But without that, can you really be said to have lived at all?
So in the Paleolithic, when absolutely everyone was an action adventure sport athlete facing death on a regular basis, a lot of time must have been spent in the eternal now. We bonded to other people more closely and intensely than today. Our ability to synthesize new ideas and lateral thinking was enhanced. We felt an intense connection with our environment and with each other. All of this is what the flow research shows. Was it worth losing this? Our long lives seem somehow less appealing to me.
Here is an excerpt from a fascinating article on adventurer Sarah Marquis in The New York Times:
Marquis’s desire to travel began to coalesce around the question of whether she could survive by herself in nature. First, she decided to ride a horse across Turkey. On that trip, she ate apricots off trees and slept with her head on her saddle. Muslim women bathed her in warm goat’s milk. But after that, Marquis’s itineraries veered away from romance and pleasure into solitude and suffering. In her early 20s she flew to New Zealand and set out on a four-day backpacking trip with some noodles, a huge radio and three or four books — “everything except what I needed.” The outing, by typical standards, was a fiasco. Day 1 it poured; Marquis didn’t know how to set up her tent, and she was freezing and bored because, she now said wryly, “at night there was nothing to do.” But near the end of the trip she had a sort-of epiphany. “Something happened,” she said. (Articulating her reasons for pursuing her travels is not one of Marquis’s strengths.) “Over the years I’ve had this feeling again and again.” Chasing that inexplicable sensation is why she walks.
In Washington last winter, Marquis met with people from the National Geographic Speakers Bureau, because that’s what explorers do (and pretty much have always done): come home and sell their stories. It was nine months after re-entry into mainstream life, and she was happy to return to some physical comforts: sleeping in a bed, taking two baths a day. But she found being among people overwhelming, and her senses remained so acute that even just sitting in a cafeteria was grating. “You hear the dishwasher?” Marquis asked me, pointing toward an unseen kitchen. I shook my head. Marquis said, resigned, “There’s a radio playing back there, too.”So I contend that, as Chris Ryan says above, that even if hunter-gatherers did only live to be 40, in a very real sense they lived longer. They lived better. They were alive. You can't tell how much a person was in a flow state from a skeleton. We can only speculate. But based on Steven Kotler's research with action adventure sport athletes, I think we can safely assume that Paleolithic peoples must have spent a lot of time in this state.
Marquis plans to return to northwest Australia in 2016. She said it’s her “dream to go with just a sarong and a knife” — the ultimate test of survival. It’s hard not to wonder where these urges come from. Geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists and religious scholars have all taken stabs at answering, with unsatisfying results. But perhaps the real reason to court a sufferfest — to explore or adventure, or whatever you want to call it — is that it makes a person feel alive. The literature of survival is weirdly upbeat. A few days before dying, in 1912, Robert Falcon Scott wrote a letter telling a friend that he wished that friend were with him “to hear our songs and the cheery conversation.” The day of his death, Scott said of his trip, “How much better has it been than lounging in too great comfort at home.”
Of course, if you don’t die — well, then the experience of extreme travel is fantastic. After swimming across a river infested with crocodiles, Marquis wrote that every time she finds herself in the bush, “my happiness increases tenfold.” Perhaps among the purest expressions of joy ever recorded is of the Norwegian explorer Aleksander Gamme on the 86th day of his unsupported 1,410-mile expedition from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole and back in 2012. Desperately hungry and dreadlocked, he comes upon a cache that he buried in the snow for himself a few months earlier. From the frozen duffel he pulls matches, Vaseline and zinc ointment. Then he starts screaming: “YEAAAAA! AAAAHHH! HAHA! YEAA! WHOOOWHOOO.” His elation at seeing a double pack of Cheez Doodles might be greater than any most of us will feel in our entire lives.
The Ancient Greeks had two words for time – chronos, meaning the measurement of time, and kairos. Chronos is what can be measured by a clock, but kairos means the present moment - time lifted from life. The “right” time – moments where everything is right and you feel alive and grateful to be on this planet. We’ve succeeded in extending one but utterly impoverished the other.
For as the saying goes, life is not measured by the number of breaths that you take, it's measured by the number of moments that take your breath away.
Tangentially Speaking - Andrew Gurevich Returns (TS1)
Tangentially Speaking - John Helliwell (TS2)
Bulletproof Executive (BX) - Steven Kotler
The Art of Charm (AOC) - Steven Kotler
The Drunken Taoist (TDD) - Robert Greene
The Woman Who Walked 10,000 Miles (No Exaggeration) in Three Years (New York Times Magazine)
Chuang Tzu: “The Dexterous Butcher” (Bureau of Public Secrets)
The Rise of Superman: 17 Flow Triggers (Slideshare)
College Students Are Less Empathic Than Generations Past (Scientific American)