Four Yorkshiremen

The older I’ve got and the more I have learned about life, the more I have come to realize that I was borne at a very fortuitous time. (What I’m going to write will sound a bit like Four Yorkshiremen but so be it.)

I spent my childhood in post-war Finland living on a small farm (we did have a floor and no holes in the roof though). I was about four years old when we got electricity installed and my grandmother got a TV. We bought our first car a few years later. Getting to school was a five kilometer hike on forest trails and dirt roads. There was no school bus and the concept of driving your kid to school would not be invented in Finland until some thirty years later. In the winter when the lake froze over I skied (like in all these stories about childhood in the Nordic countries there was always more snow “back then”). After school I continued playing outdoors with my younger brother. Life was a constant adventure in the woods and by the lake. We, the kids would watch our father gutting game and grouse and we would go fishing. Common items on the menu was pike, perch, hare and capercaillie. In short, I lived in many ways a paleolithic life that I believe built a robust foundation for my life in the 2010’s. This is admittedly just one data point but I’m pretty sure that at least my still well-functioning body is a product of that childhood environment.

As I have indicated in some earlier posts, psychiatric conditions are on the rise. The human genome hasn’t changed much since our days as hunter-gatherers (bar lactose tolerance and a few more odd traits), i.e. we are genetically on average about as susceptible to mental illness now as then. Of course the diagnostic procedures have improved meaning that we can now detect smaller “deviations” from the norm but we also see more and more people actually being unable to function in the society. 41% of all sick benefits in Sweden are currently due to psychiatric diagnoses and this percentage has been increasing steadily. So to me it’s pretty obvious that while some (fixed) number of cases of mental illnesses have a biological etiology, much of the increase in these conditions can be attributed to unnatural stress, unhelpful life styles facilitated and perversely encouraged by the current society, and poor genetic adaptation in general to the requirements of modern life.

Some diagnoses like ADHD were not necessarily even “conditions” in the paleolithic society. A hunter-gatherer with ADHD was seeking novelty, had the ability to shift focus swiftly and got bored with sitting around. These traits were probably quite useful in that era [1]. They are less useful if you have to sit and listen to boring teachers many hours a day.

Likewise many authors claim that depression is the body’s natural way of telling it’s owner to take a break when the situation seems hopeless (the effect of antidepressants is indeed tested by measuring how long rats continue struggling in a hopeless situation when administered the drug) [2]. Perhaps a bout of depression didn’t get a change to spiral into a chronic state back then due to environmental pressures; one’s family was close by and would encourage (or perhaps force) you up and be useful. It is easier today to withdraw from family, friends and activities, thereby entrenching the depression.

There is an obvious parallel to some somatic illnesses that are becoming more prevalent in the western word such as diabetes and coronary diseases. These are very much caused by unhealthy life styles and food of the modern society.

The obvious conclusion is that we must either live a little more like the hunter-gatherers or reprogram our genes. Reprogramming genes is still a risky proposition so our only option today is to change our lifestyle [3].

The benefits of physical activity for both body and mind are well established and many of us, although still too few, include some physical activities into our daily schedules.

Paleolithic food is also slowly becoming more popular and the effects of it are proven to be beneficial [4].

We should also seek explanations and therapies for mental conditions from studies of the era for which our genes are mostly adapted. It seems in fact (by accident or by design) that some of the “third wave” psychotherapies, especially Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Behavioral Activation, are very much in tune with the probable implicit cures for (some) mental conditions in the paleolithic era. These therapies teach us to accept things as they are and to activate ourselves so as to do something useful to start feeling the satisfaction of accomplished tasks again [5].

We may want to be “modern” but deep in our bodies and souls we are hunter-gatherers. That is a reasonable starting point for modern mental and somatic health care.


[1] A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.
[2] The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. Jonathan Rottenberg.
[3] Evolutionary Well-Being: the paleolithic model.
[4] The Beneficial Effects of a Paleolithic Diet on Type 2 Diabetes and Other Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease. David C. Klonoff.
[5] Behavioral Activation for Depression: A Clinician’s Guide Reprint Edition. Christopher R. Martell (Author), Sona Dimidjian (Author), Ruth Herman-Dunn (Author), Peter M. Lewinsohn (Foreword).

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