• Zee

The Big Squeeze and Our Ambient Anxiety


We live much more densely together than we evolved to live. When I look around it seems to me that the constant tension introduced by having to account for the presence of others is a recent evolutionary mismatch. I think that in ancient nomadic bands, when contact with strangers was rare, people generally felt "good". But mankind has gradually grown denser. I have read that developed nations are 74% urban. I personally let out a sigh of relief when I see the 'city limit' sign, as it is a reminder that I am now no longer in the density of the city. I think that it is an almost unbearable burden for us to have to love and accept our neighbours. But we have nowhere else to go. We have forgotten how to live in the wild. I think that alcohol is, if anything, an escape from the oppressing crowds, a recess from the perpetually high levels of cortisol that are unavoidable when we humans, are in the constant presence of strangers.

I imagine that the world people used to live was sparsely populated. They would not meet many other people, and if they did, these would commonly be people they had met before, people they knew.

I think that meeting a stranger carries with it an inherent tension. Two strangers in Palaeolithic times were not automatically enemies, but they were not automatically on friendly terms either.

Then there is our natural desire for "personal space". We do not readily pee, defecate or sleep in the presence of others.

Now, on a personal note, I actually love people, even strangers. The discrepancy, I suspect, derives from the fact that the social brain and the anti-social brain are very different organs (certainly with very different agendas).

What drew people to cities?

During some period in our ancient past, mankind (or perhaps beginning with mankind's predecessors) learned how to turn grains into food. This is not a simple thing. It requires fire and very elaborate tools. It was likely developed in bursts of refinement and improvement. And this gradual discovery is what may have ended the nomadic way of life, replacing it with the agricultural way of life.

Gradual as this change may have been, it seems it was fast enough to have left us only partially adapted it. One should also note, that some societies (such as the bushmen of the Kalahari) preserved the hunter-gatherer way of life.

So today's human brain finds itself challenged with a set of built-in reactions that are not fit for city life. It would do us good to exercise more compassion, patience, understanding and forgiveness than that which comes naturally to us. These are qualities of behaviour that are conducive to life in a shared environment. If nothing else, we share the same space, air and vistas - in the city. Cities are, for the most part, shelter and territory. Cities impose a lot of rules on their inhabitants and I do not take for granted the ability of the human brain, which evolved in the context of a nomadic lifestyle, to deal successfully with so many rules. Our natural behaviours are relatively fine-tuned to engage beneficially with the people we know. But we need adjustments from our natural tendencies when we are to behave in accordance with rules imposed by the city where we constantly have to engage with strangers.

In another blog post, I claim that new psychoactive substances can adjust our brain so that we feel better and behave in a way that is less in line with our natural tendencies and more conducive to our current urban predicament.


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