I recently read an intriguing piece in the New York Times on the relationship between evolution and excessive consumption of red meat. Historically, it said, food wasn’t always easy to come by. Hunter-gatherers were at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather and the whimsy of the herd, and a nice juicy steak for dinner was, if you’ll pardon the pun, rare. Red-meat meals required not only skill but also a generous portion of luck.
That being said, meat was inevitably the most nutrient-dense foodstuff around. As a result, we evolved to treasure it: in a world where you never knew when your next meal would be, you had to take every opportunity you got to stock up on calories. Evolutionarily speaking, our bodies became conditioned to consume as much red meat as possible, whenever it was available to us.
But in recent years, the nature of the food supply has changed dramatically. Red meat is now as readily available as running water. Schoolchildren don’t even connect the plastic-wrapped stuff at the supermarket with living, breathing cows; it’s just dinner, and all you need to do to eat it is, well, buy it.
The problem is that, while the availability of meat has increased dramatically, our bodies still act as if it were scarce. We are still hard-wired to eat every hamburger as if it were the last meal we were going to get for weeks, even if the last hamburger we had was just yesterday. Our metabolism hasn’t yet figured out that our current state of abundance has made it not only possible but advisable to put a cap on our craving for cow.
And what, you may ask, does this have to do with the Online Spin?
Earlier this week, I hosted a screening of Tiffany Shlain’s award-winning movie ”Connected.” The film is an exploration of what it means to be connected in the 21st century, and it begins with a simple story about Tiffany and a friend having lunch. During the meal, she becomes increasingly anxious about checking her email. Her best attempts at staying focused on the person she is with are ultimately in vain, and she finally fakes a trip to the bathroom so she can quickly check her smartphone. What, she asks, is going on when we can be so hooked on technology that we’d rather be virtually connecting on our phones than actually connecting with the people right in front of us?
Like the Times article, Tiffany turns to biology for an explanation. Humans are far less developed when we’re born than almost all other animals, and without our parents to care for us, we’d be sunk. Connection and love aren’t just warm fuzzy nice-to-haves; they are essential to the survival of the species. And our bodies comply, producing dopamine and oxytocin -- the hormones of pleasure, reward, and a feeling of bondedness -- when we do connect with each other. And, like the desire for red meat, there’s no mechanism to tell us when we have enough. Why would they? A human mother needs a limitless supply of feel-good juice in order to stick with her offspring long enough to see it off into independence.
Tiffany’s movie got me to thinking about our addiction to emails, to texting, to technology. Apparently, each time we receive an email or a text, our body treats it as a human connection, giving us a dopamine reward. It feels great, but the levels begin to drop immediately afterwards, leaving us hungry for the next hit. And, like red meat, the explosion of supply has dramatically outpaced our evolutionary demand for connection, leaving us unable to recognize that an obsession with checking emails and receiving text no longer serves the biological purpose for which the compulsion was designed.
And so we become addicted, absorbed in the screen, ignoring the people in front of us, ironically losing the very human connections the hormonal response was originally designed to facilitate. Are we better off? Only time will tell. But the next time you have a chance to look someone in the eye, take it. Notice the surge of happy hormones. And ask yourself if you really need to fake that trip to the bathroom.