Picture a group of hunter-gatherers seeking out food 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. A rustle in the grass captures their attention and immediately, their muscles tense, glucose and cortisol, are released into their blood stream. Immediately, they’re on ‘high-alert,’ ready run or wrestle in response to a potential threat.
Even if the noise in the grass turns out to be just the wind, or a harmless little animal making its way home, this automatic response is still hardwired into most animals, including humans. That’s because there’s no real disadvantage to mistaking the wind in the grass for a tiger, whereas someone who mistakes a tiger as just wind in the grass might well become lunch.
Fast forward to the 21st century and who hasn’t almost walked out in front of traffic while checking their phone? Or felt nervous about having to give a presentation or do some other public speaking? Not surprisingly, when it comes to such stress responses, our brain function and other physical reactions are almost identical to those in our ancient ancestors. Hunter, hipster, gatherer or governor, the nervous system responds to the environment in basically the same way.
Yet the modern environment is radically different to what it was even 50 or 100 years ago, never mind what it was like when we were still getting by as hunter-gatherers. There are more distractions and stressors than ever before, and as neuroscientist Daniel Levitin points out, this is not always good for our brain. The nervous system that protected us by being so easily distracted by potential threats is now constantly bombarded with the stimuli of modern life. Sure, these modern distractions tend to be less dangerous than a tiger lurking in the long grass, but our nervous system can’t always tell the difference.
Does this mean we humans are at the mercy of our nervous system, and that we’re fated to feel anxious and depressed? Given the drastic increase in the diagnosis of depression and anxiety in modern society, it can certainly seem like this, but there is good news. Just as our nervous system has developed to respond automatically to the environment, so too have parts of our brain developed to override these automatic responses when necessary. It is important to understand that we don’t necessarily want to alter all of our reflexive responses to the world – it’s these responses that can save us from a dangerous traffic accident, or avoid a misdirected frisbee at the beach. The problem is that what should be split second reactions sometimes persist long after they’re useful.
In recent decades, an ever-growing body of research has shown that practices from contemplative traditions such as Buddhism can have direct benefits to our wellbeing.
This is where the collaboration between science and contemplative practice is so fruitful in terms of helping us understand the nature of human happiness. One scientist working at this interface is Dr Richard Davidson and as his research shows, wellbeing is a skill that can be learned.
More and more, research is showing that practices from contemplative traditions such as Buddhism can have direct benefits to our wellbeing. This training in attention, empathy, compassion and understanding can help us avoid the negative feedback loops of anxiety and depression that result from exposing our ancient nervous systems to the modern world.
These techniques have stood up to milennia of practitioner peer-review and also to the rigour of more recent scientific study. Leading experts and cutting edge neuroscientific technology have shown them to be relevant and beneficial even today. They have proven effective in achieving high levels of mental health and wellbeing, and there are examples in the world today of highly attentive and compassionate people from whom all cultures take inspiration.
It only stands to reason that by understanding and correctly practising them ourselves, we can also achieve equally high levels of genuine happiness and wellbeing. At the very least, we can use them to avoid spiralling down into the mental unrest that is fast becoming a defining feature of modernity.