Downtime for the Stone Age Brain
by Michael W. Taft
Recently, I found a meditation retreat center in rural Massachusetts. Its super-affordable price included a room of my own, and delicious, organic hippy food. As I was moving to a new city anyway, I let go of my apartment, put my stuff in storage, and went off to the center for three months. Ninety two days of silent (absolutely no talking) meditation in a cabin in the woods. There were about thirty other people there, the size of your basic hunter-gatherer tribe in the Paleolithic. Because I have been meditating for decades, I had no trouble sinking into the groove of long sits for many hours a day, every day.
But that was not all I did. The retreat center was in the woods, surrounded by trees, brush, and wildflowers. There were wild animals everywhere, as well as insects. Each day between hours of meditation, I would go for a walk and encounter birds, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, turtles, as well as horses, dogs, and cows. Each evening I would hang out with a rafter of turkeys as they settled into the branches at sunset. I ran into an otter playing in a swamp, and once even saw a lynx lope across the dirt road.
Several weeks passed in this way, and I slowly became quite happy. Every day was a good day. My brain was emptying out of thought content, and instead was filling up with silence. I noticed that the woods, too, were silent and empty. There was a congruity there—silent mind, silent world—and I really, really liked it. I would just sit, eyes and ears and nose and skin open to nature and let its silence and openness sort of soak into me. My meditation started to fundamentally change; which after three decades is saying a lot.
That experience made me very sensitive to a condition that I call my “brain being full.” It’s a specific feeling that I have taken in enough stimulation, and now need to just go be quiet for a while. Having felt what it’s like to have all the backlog of experiences cleared out of my head, I’m intolerant of letting it build up a backlog again. It feels too good when it’s all clean and clear. Another way of talking about this is to say that the frantic, amped up feeling of too much seeking clears away. When we are seeking all the time, we are intaking new material constantly without ever actually dealing with it.
And that makes sense in terms of evolution and our ancestral environment. Our brains would have been more than adequate to handle the few exciting things that came up, and been perfectly content to sort of idle along the rest of the time. That idle mode feels really, really good, because it is probably the natural waking rest mode of the brain. Not caught in a seeking feedback loop. No stress, no anxiety or cortisol, and no overload of problems problems problems that our information overlords shovel into the gaping maw of our need for novelty. It’s like feeding Cap’n Crunch to kids: they can’t stop eating it, even though it’s not doing them any good.
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 wonderful, but your amazement probably wouldn’t last all that long. I suspect that, if you were to stay back in the Stone Age any length of time longer than, say, a week, you would be slammed in the face by how incredibly boring it was. Boring and painful.
Those would be your main impressions. Imagine a world with no books, movies, television, music on demand, Internet, texting. Imagine a world where you only had the same thirty 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 all looks great, but after a while it all looks the same. If you want to see something different, there are no pictures, no magic of the world wide web. When the sun goes down, you can’t see anything for twelve long hours until it comes up again. Next to a campfire or on the few nights of the bright moon, you can sort of see something, but in general you’re just stuck there, staring into the darkness for hours and hours. Boring.
All of this is not to disparage the Paleolithic, but instead to give you a sense of the environment your brain and nervous system were designed for. (Yes, I am anthropomorphizing evolution. Sue me.) There might be one or two exciting events in a whole month, and the rest of the time, it’s just the sound of wind in the trees. Hunting involved endless hours or even days of just running, with a couple of minutes of rote struggling with the animal at the end. And gathering—don’t even get me started.
Mammals are wired to look for novelty in the environment, a behavior called “seeking.” In his research, neuroscientist and psychologist Jaak Panksepp discovered an interesting feature of the networks in mammal brains, particularly rats. 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 it collapses. They’ve done experiments like this on humans, too, with similar results. The neuroscience behind this is fascinating, but the short version is this: your brain is wired to seek, and get a dopamine hit each time it does. (Non-academic summary of research.) Seeking creates 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 a while you just feel stressed, sketchy, and burnt out.
The complement to the seeking system is the reward system. Finding the object of seeking, such as food, a mate, or a place to sleep, creates opiates—the drugs that calm you down, make you blissful, and unwilling to seek. The opiates and the dopamine create a natural loop. The opiates counterbalance the seeking, and keep it from getting caught in an endless cycle. The trouble is that evolution did not favor animals that sat around all fat, happy, and satisfied with themselves. While they may have been the happiest creatures ever to live, they were also probably the first to become dinner for other, less satisfied seekers. This means that the system is rigged: there is much more desire to seek than to be rewarded. We would rather look than actually find.
The drive to seek is deeply baked into the brains of mammals, and it is deeply baked into you. It was created for a world in which novelty was a rarity, a strange and wonderful newness in an enormous 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, our ancestors 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. If television is a firehose of raw emotional intensity and mental novelty delivered into your living room, the Internet is a tsunami.
Our brains have an insatiable urge for seeking new things, but now we have a limitless source of novelty. 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 hit of dopamine. 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.
But maybe there’s a way out. It’s not to shut off the firehose, although I gave up television 30 years ago, and it’s not a bad idea. Instead, it’s to every so often take a break from new information.
I’m not suggesting that everyone take three months off to look at trees (although it wouldn’t hurt). What I am suggesting is that our brains require some real down time. Down time 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. Down time means deeply quiet, really simple, totally open time in which you are not working, accomplishing anything, or taking in new information. Down time 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. Let yourself get really bored.
Will sitting in a park looking at clouds really be enough to clear all the detritus out of your neurons? My guess, from experience, is that it probably would be, if you could do enough of it. The trouble is that our complicated, busy lives do not afford us enough down time to actually allow the brain the downtime it needs. With all that happens in just one day of modern life, it would take something like a week of hanging out next to a stream to process. Simplicity is not an efficient enough process; it cleans too slowly. We were not designed by evolution to have that much stuff to clear out. Input is greater than the processing available.
This is where meditation comes in. Meditation was invented during the founding of the Axial religions, around 500 BCE. Before that, I suspect that people had little need for it. Life had been simple enough and still natural enough to allow the brain the down time it needed. But with the construction of massive city states, civilizations, new technologies, and highly interconnected modern societies, people’s ability to cope with the novelty overload they were experiencing began to break down. Siddhartha Gautama (the historical person now known by his title, the Buddha) said that suffering was caused by tanha which is usually translated as “desire,” but which could easily be alternatively translated as “seeking.” Seeking causes suffering. Constantly on the lookout for novelty, you cannot rest. You get caught in a hyperactive feedback loop that eventually rags you out. To combat this affliction of modernity, the Buddha prescribed meditation.
Meditation is a fuzzy word in English. There are many different definitions, and many different techniques, some of which are apparently the opposite of others. For most people, meditation means sitting with your legs crossed and trying not to think. That is actually a very difficult and advanced technique, and not necessarily even the best one. There are certain forms of meditation (such as Zen shinkantaza, Krishanmurti’s choiceness awareness, and various advaita non-techniques) that are essentially just sitting there without doing anything on purpose. This is different than trying not to think, or doing a mantra, or trying to concentrate (although all of these are useful meditation techniques). It is essentially getting out of the way, and allowing the brain eventually to revert to its “natural state.” Although natural is a loaded word, often used to obscure rather than reveal, in this case I think it’s exactly accurate in the sense of the state your brain evolved to be in most of the time. A kind of alert, relaxed openness. Not thinking about anything in particular, but not striving to remove thinking either. Not seeking, in other words.
Meditation is, in a sense, unnatural. It’s very unlikely that HGs in the Paleolithic sat around meditating. They didn’t need to, because everything was much slower, spacious, and gentle. It was low impact on the brain. But with the rise of modern society (and I’m calling India at 500 BCE a modern society, meaning people living in cities), people couldn’t find enough down time to return their minds to a natural state. There was too much novelty, too many new ideas, too much cool stuff to do, talk about, and see. The feedback loop of seeking had too much fuel, and something had to be done. Something that itself was a new technology, an activity that people had not done before, but which would return the brain, and the person, to a relaxed, open state. So we can think of meditation as an unnatural way to return to a natural state. Sort of like weightlifting or special diets—activities which no hunter-gatherer would have engaged in, but which help our bodies return to a more natural state of health and wellbeing.
Our brains need down time. Your quality of life will skyrocket as you flush hours of seeking out of your week. The majority of the interesting, exciting, novel stimuli you’re getting in society are composed of empty calories anyway. So give yourself as much downtime as you can. Here are a few simple suggestions to do that:
Number one: schedule some time each day to do nothing. Walk in the park. Sit in the tub. Walk in the park. Chill out and hang out. Doing this with other people, as long as it doesn’t become too mental, is great.
Number two: meditate. It doesn’t matter which technique you use, although I would suggest one of the more “open” techniques mentioned earlier. You may be surprised how good it feels to let the brain burn through its backlog, getting lean, sleek, and fit in the process.