If you were instantly transported back to the Paleolithic, with all your modern faculties intact, what would be the number one thing you would notice? The beauty of nature, the enormous herds of game and flocks of birds, the fresh air, the lack of noise? Sure, those would be awe inspiring, but your amazement probably wouldn't last all that long. I suspect that, if you were to stay back in the Stone Age longer than, say, a week, you would be slammed in the face by how incredibly boring it was.
Imagine a world with no books, movies, television, music on demand, Internet, texting. Imagine a world where you only had the same thirty or so people to talk to every day for your whole life. Nature is beautiful, but it is also placid. Bird calls, rustling leaves, and babbling brooks comprise the soundscape, something so boring that we call it ambient white noise. It looks great, but after a while it all looks the same. After sunset, you wouldn’t see much of anything for twelve long hours until it came up again. You're just stuck there, staring into the darkness for hours and hours. There might be one or two exciting events in a whole month, and the rest of the time, it's just the sound of the wind in the trees. This is the environment that our brains evolved to cope with. An environment with very little novelty.
Mammals are wired to look for novelty, a behavior called "seeking." Seeking is like crack for us. It’s stronger than any other drive, including sex, food, and sleep. Doubtful? In his research with rats, neuroscientist and psychologist Jaak Panksepp discovered that if you place an electrode in the area for sexual stimulation, for example, and provide the rat with a button that will stimulate the electrode, the rat will press it for a while, achieve satisfaction, and then stop pressing the button until another day. The same thing happens with hunger and sleep. The rat will press the button until satisfied, become euphoric and relaxed, and then rest, or do something else.
If, however, you place the electrode in the area that stimulates seeking behavior (the lateral hypothalamus), something quite different occurs. The rat will press the button, and press the button, and press the button, and never reach satisfaction. Rather than becoming euphoric and relaxed, the rat will become crazed, strung out, frenzied—pushing the button until he collapses. They've done experiments like this (sans electrodes) on humans, too, with similar results. Your brain is wired to seek, and get a dopamine hit each time it does. (Non-academic summary of research.) Seeking releases dopamine, which is the same neurotransmitter stimulated by drugs like cocaine and speed. It makes you feel focused, energized, and good at first, but after awhile you just feel stressed, sketchy, and burned out.
The drive to seek is deeply baked into the brains of mammals, and that includes you. Our seeking behavior evolved in a world where novelty was a rarity, a strange and wonderful newness in an ocean of old sameness. The world of boring sameness is the world our brain expects, and it's why we get so addicted to the new, the exciting, the strange. Our ancestors needed sugar and so we are saddled with a sweet tooth that is killing us, because we now live in a sugar-saturated world. In the same way, we evolved in a world where almost nothing interesting ever happened, and so we are stuck with a real hankering for anything new. The rub is that we now live in an environment with an endless supply of intense, novel stimuli. Blessed with a limitless resource of newness, we are stuffed beyond the limit with unprocessed, undigested, and unhelpful experiences that we cannot convert to energizing, useful, practical knowledge. We can't stop pressing the seek button, looking for another little dopamine hit. We are information junkies, and our brains are full. Like rats in a lab, we could just keep hitting the seek button until we collapse. And this problem isn’t a new one, but may have been around since civilization began.
Our brains require some real downtime. That doesn't mean watching a movie (which is just a bunch of emotional stimulation, and more novelty seeking) or doing something exciting and fun with friends. Downtime means deeply quiet, really simple, totally open time in which you are not working, accomplishing anything, or taking in new information. Downtime means staring at trees, or strolling aimlessly in a forest. Hanging out at the beach, or sitting on a mountainside. Even in the city, it's not that hard to just kick back and watch the sky or relax at home. It’s the simple, quiet, beautiful, and, yes, somewhat boring activity that we evolved to enjoy.
Share your favorite tips for getting some much-needed downtime below.
photo by Per Ola Wiberg