According to Deirdre Barrett, a clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, our primal urges have contributed to creating the obesity epidemic, social isolation, poor risk-assessment tendencies and sex addiction. She discusses the link between our impulses and how it relates to living in the modern world.
CANWEST NEWS SERVICE
APRIL 4, 2010 12:02 PM
The evolutionary impulses that allowed our ancestors to survive on the Savannah are sabotaging us in the modern world, finds groundbreaking new research.
According to Deirdre Barrett, a clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, our lingering primal urges have helped give rise to the obesity epidemic, social isolation, poor risk-assessment tendencies and sex addiction, among countless other things. All because our biology hasn’t caught up to the way we live.
“We still have Stone-Age brains inside contemporarily clothed bodies,” says Barrett, author of the new book Supernormal Stimuli. “So we can’t really trust our instincts; we need to trust our intellects.”
The problem, of course, is that most of us don’t. And according to Barrett’s studies, it’s because we’re governed by the same knee-jerk behaviour as so-called “dumb animals.”
Just as a songbird has been shown to prefer fake eggs over its own real ones, simply because the phonies offer an exaggerated version of reality — brighter colours, embellished markings, larger in size — so, too, are humans duped by their own instincts.
“When we see animals trying to mate with a little cardboard cylinder just because it has the right stripes on the side, it looks really silly to us,” says Barrett. “But magazine pornography isn’t any less unrealistic a depiction of a real woman.”
Because most big genetic changes take 10,000 years or more to pass, she says humans are still coded to respond to their environment in very primitive ways. Once-scarce fat, salt and sugar, for instance, is still pursued today, to the point of excess, despite the fact it’s become widely available.
“Our genes haven’t had time to stop craving those things and start craving green, leafy vegetables, which were around us all the time on the Savannah and didn’t need to be prioritized,” says Barrett.
Our social instincts are as easily fooled — and again, to our detriment — by TV’s exaggerated versions of things we naturally seek out.
“We have very attractive actors smiling at us, and laugh tracks playing, and funny quips coming faster than they ever could in real life,” says Barrett. “All the things that are meant to pull us into a social interaction but, in fact, are pulling us toward a television set.”
Even our ability to detect threats is affected, with Barrett noting people are likelier to gasp at a horror movie or picture of a giant gorilla than news of global warming, which wasn’t an obvious danger to our ancestors.
Because evolution won’t ever catch up to our changing times, she says the best we can do is to recognize what’s happening and try to behave logically.
“We have the tools to handle this, with our superior intellect and brain power,” says Barrett. “The problem is that we act reflexively most of the time.”