The Paleo Mind

Dr. Brett HowardPerformance

The “paleo” fad is one that takes us back to our roots…way back. Those who are following a paleo lifestyle often endorse taking on the eating habits similar to our caveman ancestors. The idea is that a diet containing food items that were available to our paleolithic relatives (e.g., vegetables, nuts, fruits, fish) is a diet that makes us healthier and less vulnerable to disease. However, despite the benefits that may come from adopting a menu inspired by neanderthals, we must be more mindful of the pitfalls associated with the use of another relic left over from prehistoric times: our mind.

As Russ Harris says in The Happiness Trap, the primitive part of our mind is “basically a ‘don’t get killed’ device.” Our brains evolved primarily to keep us alive long enough for us to reproduce. After you have had a meal, sex, and resting in a safe place, your brain’s official responsibility has been mostly fulfilled. Unfortunately, we ask a lot more of our brains, and we often beat ourselves up when it underproduces.

Although the primitive mind has its shortcomings, it achieves its primary evolutionary objective quite well. The mind is extraordinary in its ability to anticipate and avoid danger, and it continues to excel in this same mission today. But instead of alerting us to an encroaching saber-toothed tiger or a man-eating plant, our primitive mind sounds alarm to the every-day-stressors of our modern life…even if the “stress” you experience in either scenario is relatively the same. At a neuro-chemical level, your mind simply does not know the difference between a charging mastodon and an impending deadline.

“Safety in numbers” was also invented by our caveman ancestors, and it was the responsibility of our paleo mind to ensure that nobody was left alone. In prehistoric days, those who were part of a group survived, and those who survived reproduced. Eventually, the paleo mind evolved sensitivities to those aspects of behavior that predicted an individual remaining part of a larger group and close to others for safety.

The paleo mind was encoded to ensure that we “fit in” to our community, which meant that signs of social rejection were interpreted as threatening. Thus, our paleo minds are wired to notice ways that we are similar and different to those around us. Our minds can see “danger” when we feel excluded from others, and our minds are often busy evaluating our attributes relative to our peers to ensure group cohesion and uniformity.

So the next time you find yourself in a panic over a canceled flight or discouraged that your physique doesn’t match the supermodel on your magazine, cut yourself a break…your brain is doing nothing more than what it has evolved to do.

Our paleo minds alert us to danger and compare ourselves to others. It is up to us to use our more modern reasoning to step back from our paleo mind’s primitive behavior and evaluate our environments, and ourselves, with a much more enlightened and compassionate perspective.