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“These parts of our brains are here to stay and we must learn to deal with them as a part of our cognitive architecture.” -Keith E. Stanovich

The modern world, with its dense population and agricultural dependence is much different from the settings of our evolutionary past. In terms of our developmental trajectory, current settings are far less violent and threatening than what John Bowlby referred to as the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). Broadly, the EEA was much more dangerous than current conditions. Evidence indicates that we evolved amidst perilous circumstances; to be wary and on guard equated survival. As Steven Pinker explained in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, “If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence” (2011).

There is discrepancy now between how we evolved to live and how we currently live. Mismatch between our inherited disposition and modern settings may contribute to many of our uniquely human challenges. In their book, Evolutionary Psychiatry, psychiatrists Anthony Stevens and John Price (2000) addressed this mismatch between present environmental circumstances and the EEA. They wrote that, “it would seem plausible to propose that our modern urban environment is less conducive to the mental health and well-being of the contemporary human animal than was the environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (p.35). A major reason such incongruence exists is that in these distant settings the human nervous system evolved to posses primitive and vigilant threat detection, primed for split-second fight-flight-freeze reactions. In the words of ACT therapist and teacher Russ Harris, “The primitive mind was basically a don’t get killed device” (2011).

Despite its survival value, this reactive system is responsible for unnecessarily and frequently stressing the organism. It is helpful to realize that to embody this protective system is to host a multitude of directive, reactionary, and uncomfortable sensations. Heightened reactivity in a mismatched environment can make for a miserable, stress-filled existence. When considering these facts, it comes as no surprise that anxiety is one of the top medical complaints (NIMH), and that human beings all too often find themselves feeling miserable and depressed. Rapidly, mindfulness based interventions are being identified as useful remediation for this “less conducive” circumstance.

Jacob Ferguison

Banner photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash.