Friday, September 04, 2009

Prosperity and Survival Patterns

In affluent societies, the survival mechanisms wired into our brains at birth are leading to what are now called Lifestyle Diseases. People are trying to balance their propensity for boredom with surrogate activities, their indulgence in calorie-rich food with compensatory exercise, their depressions with their addictions, their heart ailments with surgery, and so on and so forth.

I will not go into the reasons why people like to eat a lot, why they get bored, why they get depressed, why hearts are failing. These are well-understood phenomena.

My question is whether there is a better alternative than to precariously balance (consciously or unconsciously) the ill-effects of our behavior patterns with other behavior patterns. This is an important question because the ill effects mostly stem from a deeper source (our in-built patterns or what was earlier called our unconscious brain) whereas the compensation has to be willed and adhered to consciously. And moreover, the ill effects are usually visible only in late adulthood when it is too late for most people to change their ways.

It is an unfortunate sight to see someone who likes to eat punishing himself by walking on a treadmill, or someone compulsively indulging in mobile phone games to ward off boredom.

Is there another way to live in these times, in which neither indulgence nor compensation are there in the picture? Indulgence is a constant danger even if one doesn't want to indulge. There are strong financial forces working to make people consume and then regret. Can an individual hope to live these days without constantly worrying whether he or she is living a healthy life?

This is a rather hard problem. I am pretty sure that the stresses of modern life (e.g. of living in extremely dense habitats, of having to appear likable throughout the day at one's workplace, of having to protect one's money from a constant atmosphere of financial predation, etc.) lead one to want to relieve one's stresses by consumption which, though having some positive mood-elevating effects on the various neurotransmitters, plays further havoc with one's health.

Non-consumptive reliefs such as meditation or breathing exercises are not to be sneezed at, but they are still in the realm of compensatory acts. Meditators usually need their daily "fix" of meditation in order to go through the day. Yes, meditation is healthier than having a drink in the morning, but the question is: what is the causation of the stress which is being relieved?

It is interesting to read Richard's notes on how he experiences hunger. In short, he doesn't.

[Respondent]: ‘Do you experience hunger?

[Richard]: ‘No (all appetitive desires are null and void).

[Co-Respondent]: ‘If you don’t eat for a day or two, there would be certain sensations in your body which are usually classified as hunger by normal humans.

[Richard]: ‘The bodily sensation of an empty stomach is not what is usually classified as hunger by normal humans – and it does not take a day or two of not eating anyway but only a few hours – as what is usually classified by normal humans as hunger is a feeling of being hungry which arises from that sensation ... which feeling desists (in normal humans) when replaced by a feeling of satiety which arises from the sensation of a full stomach after having eaten.

[Co-Respondent]: ‘This is certainly new to me.

[Richard]: ‘Laboratory tests have shown that stimulation of the lateral nucleus of the hypothalamus (known as the ‘feeding centre’) activates feeding in animals – whereas lesions of the lateral nucleus abolish all desire to eat (aphagia) – and that stimulation of the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (aka the ‘satiety centre’) inhibits feeding ... whereas lesions of the ventromedial nucleus can lead to compulsive eating (hyperphagia).

Incidentally, it has been found that opiates also stimulate the ventromedial nucleus (hence the use of amphetamine for control of obesity)’.

In my thinking, environmental stresses and harmful internal stresses both need to be addressed. It is silly to claim that people can be happy and calm even in a highly stressful environ (for example a lawless city, or a war zone). Man to a very great extent is influenced by his environment and to claim otherwise is to simply advocate dissociation.

- Since environmental stresses (e.g. pollution, inducements to consumption, crowding, cognitive overload, threats to health and wealth) are not within the power of a single individual to tackle, one can either be very rich and protect oneself from most of these stresses (but at the cost of the new stress of having to sustain a high level of prosperity), or one can just remove oneself from a stressful environment and retreat to a small town, have a less stressful job, to less polluted surroundings.

- On the other hand, I believe that to a large extent, personal psychological ailments are within the power of an individual to address. There are various approaches one can take to address one's in-born lust, greed, insecurity, fear of death, need to impress, etc. It is not my intention here to go into the merits of any particular approach.

The situation is complicated because as an adult, personal psychological ailments and environmental stresses feed on each other. Bored people seek consumption, insecure people seek branded goods, loveless beings want to appear attractive, etc. It is hard to break this vicious cycle of personal and environmental stress. People get addicted to their ailments: to their need for a consumptive fix. It can be hard to break this pattern.

Some suggestions:

- A short vacation to a place where man-made influences are few can act as a bootstrapping catalyst.

- Spending time with people who are much below or much above one's financial standing can be a sobering reflection on one's lifestyle and aspirations.

- Experimenting, for fun, with one's consumption patterns. Spending the whole day in front of the TV (and nothing else), eating the same meal twice a day for a week, not talking to anybody for 24 hours, going blindfolded for a whole weekend inside the house, can be pattern-breaking activities. Such experiments just might bring that one is a compulsive addict in ways that one didn't realize, and that one is deeply sick.

What do you think?


naivecortex said...

- Perform the various errands and mundane household activities 'waiting' to be done. Really do it.

Jarnail said...

The only stress free place is a graveyard.

Lukas said...

"It is an unfortunate sight to see someone who likes to eat punishing himself by walking on a treadmill…"

Do people do that? Or do you mean in the the more 'normal' sense of modern urban people going to the gym to 'burn off' the general over-abundance of food that modern life provides?

A person who eats 8,000 calories per day doesn't strike me as the same person who would be motivated to exercise a lot (save for professional athletes), but I don't really know.

Or, if you take the phrase likes to eat another way, that could mean simply enjoying food. As it's been pointed out before (e.g. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food) Americans who over-indulge in food don't get as much satisfaction from the food they eat as those cultures, like in France, where rich foods are normal, but eating is enjoyed much more — perhaps due to their restraint and rarity of eating the rich foods some Americans might eat regularly.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Lukas,

Haven't you heard people say that because they overate today, they will work out more at the gym tomorrow.

As for the Europeans being less of gluttons, hmmm, maybe the American hedonism is shall we say, more animal-like, than that of Europeans? And that may be, as I point out, because urban Americans lead more stressed lives than their European counterparts, being driven more by the financial forces than cultural ones?

Lukas said...

"Haven't you heard people say that because they overate today, they will work out more at the gym tomorrow."

Ah, yes. I guess I'd call that the 'normal' sense of the punishment you explained. So commonplace I'd not thought it to be a real problem. I might have been thinking of more extreme over-indulgences…

"…maybe the American hedonism is shall we say, more animal-like, than that of Europeans? And that may be, as I point out, because urban Americans lead more stressed lives than their European counterparts…"

Yes, I think so too. Also perhaps due to certain cultural taboos ingrained in the eating habits of some European nations. As Michael Pollan points out, second-helpings of a meal are often frowned upon in France, whereas in America there's the common sentiment that you must always finish what's on your plate. Combine that with larger portions sizes, and, well, you get larger people… (at least that may be one aspect to a complex issue).

This extra clip that was excluded from Michael Moore's Sicko quite humorously points out the potential differences in lifestyle-stress you mention ;-)

naivecortex said...

HARMAN: Haven't you heard people say that because they overate today, they will work out more at the gym tomorrow.

I was conversing with a roomate of my previous residence .. and when I asked "Is it not better to eat normal, instead of eating more and hitting the gym?" he responded "No, it is better to eat more and go to gym .. and scientific studies show the benefits of that.". I was not aware of any such studies.

I thought that his belief was justified by the below quote from Richard; and since I myself was not very knowledgeable about food research, I didn't say anything to him.

RICHARD: (...) the progenitor of compulsive eating – the glutton – has, of course, a vested interest in deflecting attention away from itself.

karim said...

Very thoughtfull post on prosperity .It should be very much helpfull.

Karim - Creating Power