September 02, 2023

Loneliness & the Prehistoric Brain

I struggle with loneliness. Lot's of people do.

There's also a lot of platitudinal bullshit out there about loneliness. Most of it perfectly designed to make you feel like shit.

I want to offer something that hopefully won't make you feel like shit. Something I think about all the time.

I've come to recognize that loneliness is not a personal failure. It is a conflict between how are lives are designed now and the lives we had when our brains were evolving several hundred thousand years ago.

I want you to think of this: if you were a fledgling homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, you would have known every single person in your group from the day you were born to the day you died. Every person.

That's not an exaggeration. We lived in small groups, probably no bigger than 150 people based on Dunbar's number, and we know this by examining our primate relatives and aboriginal groups today. It would be easy for you to know everyone.

You also didn't have a lot to do. Some anthropologists posit that the work of hunter-gatherers could have been as little as 10 hours per week to gather the resources needed to survive. That's less than 2 hours per day.

So what do you do when you're done with your 2 hours of work and have nothing else to do the rest of the day?

You hang out. You sit around and talk.

If you and I were ancient humans living all those millennia ago, we would have had an abundance of leisure time to spend with people we knew well. We would have sat around and socialized. We would spend our evenings around a campfire telling stories. There literally wasn't anything to do.

Your brain evolved for that world. A world of ample leisure. Of ample social opportunity.

Your brain wants that prehistoric environment.

Your brain hasn't had enough time to evolve adaptations for the world we live in now. It's wired for a time so different than now that it is no wonder we feel the way we feel.

Our brains didn't evolve to be at a laptop 40+ hours a week. To see our friends only once or twice a month. To be constantly isolated in your apartment or home.

It evolved to be frequently, almost constantly, in the company of people we know deeply and well. Or perhaps more importantly, in the company of people who know us deeply and well.

If you feel out of place, that's not on you. That's on civilization and society being so incredibly dissonant with the environment in which your brain evolved.

If you feel lonely, that's not because you're a failure. It's because your brain didn't evolve in a world where it was ever alone.

So next time you're feeling alone, please take a second to reflect on this. It won't fix the situation, but maybe it'll help you not blame yourself as much.