Evolutionary traps: How screens, digital notifications and gaming software exploits fundamental survival mechanismsPosted: January 17, 2020
Erik Peper and Richard Harvey
Mental rehearsal has many benefits.
- Athletes use mental rehearsal to improve sports performance (Peper & Aita, 2017; Schenk & Miltenberger, 2019).
- Surgeons use mental rehearsal and actual practice to improve performance (Spiotta et al., 2018).
- Psychologists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) rehearsal techniques to reduce anxiety and depression (Dobson & Dobson, 2018; Yamada et al, 2018; Cook, Mostazir, & Watkins, 2019)
- Successful business executives rehearse presentations before a staff meeting (Couch & Citrin, 2018).
- Actors and performers spend hours and days rehearsing their roles so that they portray and act it realistically during the performance .
- Students take practice exams so that they will perform better on the actual exam.
- Politicians, lawyers, and many others rehearse and practice being able to answer unexpected questions.
- Job seekers rehearse elevator pitches so that they transmit in a few words what is important
If athletes, psychologists, business executives, actors, students, politicians, job seekers and others use mental and actual rehearsal to improve their performances, would repeated watching of violent and aggressive streaming-videos, or playing hours and hours of first-shooter computer games be a form of rehearsal for aggressive behavior?
Arguably, mental and actual rehearsal is positively associated with improving health, such as preparing for an athletic competition or an academic exam and is negatively associated with health when playing aggressive, violent first-person shooter video games, or continuously watching aggressive or violent content on a variety of streaming platforms. Rehearsal–whether physical or in our imagination–impacts our health and performance in school, sports, therapy, politics, business and health. Choose to rehearse activities that improve health and well-being.
Mechanisms of rehearsal
Both mental and physical rehearsal strengthens neurochemical connections in the brain so that the rehearsed behaviors become more automated, fluid and unconscious. There is a saying in neurosciences, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” –the more you rehearse a task, the more those specific neurological pathways are strengthened, leading to automatic and efficient outcomes.
We now spend hours a day being exposed to digital displays on our phones, computers, gaming consoles and other digital devices, immersing ourselves in content reflecting life promoting, positive behavior and sometimes violent, negative behavior. Children and adults spend much of their free time looking at screens, texting, playing computer games, updating social media sites with moment by moment accounts of sometimes trivial activities, or going down the rabbit hole by following one hyperlinks after another. As we do this, we are unaware how much time has frittered away without actually doing anything productive. Below are some recent estimates of ‘daily active user’ minutes per day that uses a screen.
- Facebook about an hour per day
- Instagram just under an hour per day
- Texting about 45 minutes per day
- Internet browsing, about 45 minutes per day
- Snapchat, about 30 minutes per day
- Twitter, about 25 minutes per day
Adolescents interact with media for over 40 hours per week, or around 6 hours per day!
In spending much of our time with the screens, we rehearse a variety of physical body postures as well as a variety of cognitive and behavioral states that impact our physical, mental, emotional and social health. Many researchers have lamented the loss of some social skills that develop during physical face-to-face contact. The colloquial phrase, Use it or lose it, raises several questions about what is being lost when we spend so much of our waking time interacting with screens instead actually with other people?
It is almost impossible not to be distracted by the digital screen. The powerful audiovisual formats override our desire to do something different that some of us become enslaved to watching streaming videos, playing computer games or texting. Moreover, the ongoing visual and auditory notifications from our apps interrupts and/or capture our attention. Why is it difficult to turn away from visual or auditory stimuli? The answer has roots in our survival.
To attend to stimuli is an automatic evolutionary survival response. If we did not attend, we would not survive–Is the slight movement to the far right, just at the edge of our peripheral vision, a predator ready to attack?
Each time a stimulus occurs, we need to check it out to see if it is friend or foe, safety or danger. The response is so automatic that we are unaware that we have reacted until after we have responded. We all have experienced this. When a computer screen or cellphone screen is held by the stranger next to us, we automatically look at their screen and we may even begin to read their emails. Although we know that peering at some else’s screen is not proper, we are still feel compelled to do it!
Similarly, screens displaying computer games and other media can capture or hijack our attention by the rapid scene changes, primarily because the content is programmed so we receive intermittent rewards for our responses. For example, the sound or visual notifications from our apps, cellphone messages, or social media trigger an impulse to scan the environment for information that may be critical to our survival. Even without receiving notifications, we may anticipate or project that there may be new information on our social media accounts, and sometimes we become disappointed when the interval between notifications is long. One student talking to another might say: “Don’t worry, they’ll respond; It’s only been 30 seconds.” Anticipating responses from the media can interrupt what we are otherwise doing. For example, rather than finish our work, we check for updates on social media, even though we probably know that there are no new important messages to which we would have to respond right away.
The mechanisms that help us survive by scanning our environment for predators may now become an evolutionary trap and is exploited to capture as many eyeballs as possible to increase market share, advertising revenue, and corporate bottom line.
We usually blame the individual for lack of self-control instead of blaming the designers of the digital apps, games and displays who have exploited this biological survival mechanism. We expect that children have voluntary control as their brains are developing–but how could they not react to the stimuli that for thousands of generations, helped them to survive. It is similar to asking children to have control and say “No” to fast foods and sweets. The foods that were previously necessary for survival represented by moderate amounts of ‘salt, fat, acid, heat and sweet’ tastes are often found in excess in our modern commercial or packaged ‘fast food nation’ making it likely that people may fall into an evolutionary trap related to what they eat.
Presently, high levels of exposure to violent and aggressive streaming videos and computer games can be harmful as they provide the practice to rehearse violence, killing and aggression mentally. It would be too strong a statement to assert that everyone who plays violent video games will become delinquent, criminal or homicidal in an extreme form of aggression. According to the American Psychological Association Task Force on Video Game Violence in 2017, it may be asserted that high frequency, long duration, high intensity interactions with violent video games or similar media content is highly associated with angry and aggressive thoughts, desensitization to violence, and decreases in empathy or helping others (Calvert et al., 2017). Some forms of social media interactions also lead to a form of social isolation, loneliness (phoneliness) (Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A., 2020; Kardaras, 2017). Digital content requires the individual to respond to the digital stimuli, without being aware of the many verbal and nonverbal communication cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, posture, touch, etc) that are part of social communication (Remland, 2016). It is no wonder that more and more adolescents experience anxiety, depression, loneliness, and attention deficit disorders with a constant ‘digital diet’ that some have suggested include not only media, but junk food as well .
The negative impact of watching digital media was prescient by Jerry Mander, one of the leading visionaries of the 20th century, in his 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, as well as by Joseph C. Pearce, author of books on human development and child development, in his 1993 book, Evolution’s End.
More recently, two superb books detail the harm that the digital revolution has brought, along with recommended strategies for how to use modern technologies wisely and live successfully in an e-world. We are not saying to avoid the beneficial parts of the digital age. We are saying to be aware how some material and digital platforms prey upon our evolutionary survival mechanisms. Unfortunately, most people —especially children– have not evolved skills to counter the negative impacts of some types of media exposure. It may take parental control and societal policies to mitigate the damage and enhance the benefits of the digital age. We highly recommend the following two books.
Calvert, S. L., Appelbaum, M., Dodge, K. A., Graham, S., Nagayama Hall, G. C., Hamby, S., Fasig-Caldwell, L. G., Citkowicz, M., Galloway, D. P., & Hedges, L. V. (2017). The American Psychological Association Task Force assessment of violent video games: Science in the service of public interest. American Psychologist, 72(2), 126–143. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040413
Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A. (2020). Anhedonia, screen time, and substance use in early adolescents: A longitudinal mediation analysis. Journal of Adolescence, 78, 24-32.
Cook L, Mostazir M, Watkins E, (2019). Reducing Stress and Preventing Depression (RESPOND): Randomized Controlled Trial of Web-Based Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for High-Ruminating University Students. J Med Internet Res, 21(5):e11349
Spiotta, A.M, Buchholz, A.L., Pierce, A. K., Dahlkoetter, J., & Armonda, R. (2018). The Neurosurgeon as a High-Performance Athlete: Parallels and Lessons Learned from Sports Psychology. World Neurosurgery, 120, e188-e193
Yamada, F., Hiramatsu, Y., Murata, T., Seki, Y., Yokoo, M., Noguchi, R., … & Shimizu, E. (2018). Exploratory study of imagery rescripting without focusing on early traumatic memories for major depressive disorder. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 91(3), 345-362.
In a superb meta-analysis, Professor Ping-Tao Tseng and colleagues (2018), found that breast feeding reduces the risk of ADHD. The longer the breast feeding was the sole food source, the lower the risk of ADHD. Read the complete article, Material breastfeeding and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders in children: a meta-analysis.
One should not be surprised by this finding– breastmilk has been the primary food source for babies since the dawn of human evolution. To accept that formula is as good as breast milk is foolish. Breast milk provides the essential nutrients for infants’ growth, contains the appropriate fatty acids for brain development, and the bioactive factors to protect the baby against disease (Oddy, 2001). It modulates the sleep wake cycle since the evening breast milk contains nucleotides that promote baby’s sleep which are different from morning breast milk that promotes wakefulness (Sanchez et al, 2009). In addition, it reduces the risk of asthma, eczema, and allergic rhinitis (Lodge et al, 2015). Despite the commercial advertisements that formal is as good as breast milk, it contributes to neural malnutrition. That babies do develop with formula is a remarkable demonstration of human adaptability.
Food is our building blocks. When we consume low quality foods, we may increase the risk of developing illness. This is analogous to using superb building materials when constructing a house as the building is more resilient and may better survive the assault from the environment such as termites, storms, or earthquakes than if built from inferior materials.
People, businesses and government have a choice. We can pay the upfront costs to support women to breastfeed their babies for a year by providing paid leave from their jobs or pay much higher long term costs to remediate and treat the deficiencies induced by not supporting breast feeding.
If you are concerned about your child’s future health and want to reduce the risk of ADHD, asthma, eczema, or allergic rhinitis there is only one recommendation: Breast feed your baby for a long time period.
Lodge, C., Tan, D.J., Lau, M.X.., Dai, X., Tham, R., Lowe, A.J., Bowatte, G., Allen, K.J. & Dharmage, S.C. (2015). Breastfeeding and asthma and allergies: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paediatrica, 104(467), 38-53.
Sanchez, C.L., Cubero, J., Sanchez, J., Chanclon, B., Rivero, M., Rodriguez, A.B., & Barriga, C. (2009). The possible role of human milk nucleotides as sleep inducers. Nutritional Neuroscience, 12(1), 2-9.
Tseng, P-T., Yen, C-F., Chen, Y-W., Chen, Y-W, Stubbs, B., Carvalho, A.F., Whiteley, P., Chu, C-S…. (2018). Maternal breastfeeding and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children: a meta-analysis. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry,
Have you experienced that your attentions is more focused in the morning than late afternoon?
Have you wondered what is the best time in the day to have a job interview?
Is it better to have an operation in the morning or in the afternoon?
These and many other questions are explored in the superb book by Daniel Pink, When-The scientific secrets of perfect timing. This book reviews the literature of chronobiology, psychology, and behavior economics and describes the effect of time of day on human behavior. For example, students do significantly better if they take math tests in the morning than late afternoon or parolees have a much higher chance of being paroled early morning or right after the judge has taken a break than before lunch or late afternoon. Read Pink’s book or watch his JCCSF presentation and use the information to change your own timing patterns to optimize your health and performance.
How can people be so caring and sometimes cruel? What are the evolutionary, genetic, epigenetic, developmental, familial, tribal, community and cultural determinants that allow human beings to be heroic and give their own life for others or be killers and unbelievably cruel. Stanford biology professor Robert Sapolsky‘s book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, explores what drives human behavior. It is a remarkable tour de force to explore and explain why we do as we do. Watch his February 6, 2018 lecture at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
Meat for sale (tongue and liver) at a traditional market (photo by Erik Peper).
Should I eat vegetables or meats? Should it be steaks or organ meats such as liver, heart, sweet breads? What foods contributes most to heart disease or cancer? Should I change my diet or take medications to lower my cholesterol?
Despite the many years of research the data is not clear. Many public health dietary guidelines and recommendations were based upon flawed research, researchers’ bias and promoted by agribusiness. Starting in the 1950s there has been a significant change in the dietary habits from eating animal fats to plant based oils and fats. It is so much cheaper to produce plant based polyunsaturated salad or cooking oils (e.g. Wesson and Mazola) and hydrogenated hardened oils (e.g. margarine and Crisco) than animal fats (e.g., butter, beef tallow, and lard). Despite the many claims that lowering animal fat intake would reduce heart disease and possibly cancer, the claims are not supported by research data. It is true that consuming liquid plant based oils lowers the cholesterol, but with the possible exception of olive oil, polyunsaturated oils are associated with an increased cancer and death rates in large population studies (Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial Research Group,1982; Shaten, 1997).
We assume that lowering cholesterol is healthy; however, it is usually a surrogate marker representing a hypothesized improvement in health. A short term apparent reduction in cholesterol levels or other illness markers may mask the long term harm. Only long term outcome studies which measure the total death rate– not just from one disease being studied but from all causes of death–provides the objective results. When looking at the results over a longer time period, there appears to be no correlation between fat intake and heart disease. In fact lowering fat intake seems to be associated with poorer long term health as described in the outstanding book, The Big Fat Surprise–Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, by the science writer, Nina Teichol. Her superb investigative reporting describes in detail the flawed and biased research that underpinned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommendations to reduce animal fats and use more plant based oils.
What should I eat now?
Diet recommendations used to be simple: Reduce animal fat intake and eat more plants. Now, there are no simple recommendations because they may depend upon your genetics (e.g., digestion of milk depends whether you are lactose tolerant or intolerant), your epigenetics (e.g., maternal malnutrition during your embryological development is a major risk for developing heart disease in later life), your physical and social activities (e.g., exercise reduces the risk for many diseases), and environment. The recent popularity of the hunter and gatherer diet, often known as the paleo diet, is challenging–it may depends on your ancestors. What hunter and gatherers ate depended upon geography and availability of food sources. The Inuit’s diet in the Arctic consisted of 90% meat/fish diet while the !Kung Bushman’ diet from the Kalahari desert in Africa consisted of less than a 15% meat/fish diet as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The food content of hunter gatherers varied highly depending on geography. From: Jabr, F. (2013). How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked. Scientific American, June 3.
Use common sense to make food choices.
- Eat only those foods which in the course of evolution have been identified as foods. This means eating a variety of plants based foods (fruits, tubers, leaves, stems, nuts, etc.) and more organ meats. Ask yourself what foods did your forefathers/mothers ate that supported survival and reproductive success. Carnivores usually ate the internal organs first and often would leave the muscles for scavengers.
- Eat like your great, great grandparents. They were not yet brainwashed by the profit incentives of agribusiness and pharmaceutical industry. For more information, read the outstanding books by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
- If possible eat only organically grown/raised foods. Non organic foods usually contain low levels of pesticides, insecticides, antibiotics and hormones which increases the risk of cancer (Reuben, 2010). They may also also contain fewer nutrients such as essential minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants (Barański et al, 2014). The beneficial effects of organic foods have been challenging to demonstrate because it may take many years to show a difference. Preliminary data strongly suggests that organic foods as compared to non organic foods increases longevity, improves fertility and enhances survival during starvation (Chhabra, Kolli, & Bauer, 2013). For more information, see my blog, Live longer, enhance fertility and increase stress resistance: Eat Organic foods.
- Adapt the precautionary principle and assume that any new and artificially produced additives or chemically processed foods–most of the foods in boxes and cans in the central section of the supermarket–contain novel materials which have not been part of our historical dietary experience. These foods may be harmful over the long term and our bodies not yet know how to appropriately digest such foods such as trans fats (Kummerow, 2009).
- Be doubtful of dietary recommendations especially if you know of counter examples and exceptions. For example, the low fat diet recommendations could not explain the French or Swiss paradox (high butter and cheese intake and low heart disease rates). If examples exist, the popular dogma is incomplete or possibly wrong. Be skeptical about any health food claims. Ask who has funded the research, who decides whether a food can have a label that states “it is heart health” and can prevent a disease, and who would benefit if more of this food is sold.
My final comments on nutrition (source unknown).
- The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The French eat lots of butter and drink alcohol and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
- The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.
Eat and drink what you like especially if you enjoy it with company…speaking English is apparently what kills you!
Jabr, F. (2013). How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked. Scientific American, June 3.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat/
Kummerow, F. A. (2009). The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Atherosclerosis, 205(2), 458-465.http://www.atherosclerosis-journal.com/article/S0021-9150%2809%2900208-1/abstract
Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial Research Group. (1982). Multiple risk factor intervention trial. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 248(12), 1465-1477. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=377969
Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN: 1594200823
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN: 978-0143114963
Reuben, S. H. (2010). Reducing environmental cancer risk: what we can do now. DIANE Publishing. http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/annualReports/pcp08-09rpt/PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
Shaten, B. J., Kuller, L. H., Kjelsberg, M. O., Stamler, J., Ockene, J. K., Cutler, J. A., & Cohen, J. D. (1997). Lung cancer mortality after 16 years in MRFIT participants in intervention and usual-care groups. Annals of epidemiology, 7(2), 125-136. http://www.annalsofepidemiology.org/article/S1047-2797%2896%2900123-8/abstract
Teicholz, N. (2014). The big fat surprise-Why butter, meat & cheese belong in a healthy diet. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBM 978-1-4516-2442-7 http://www.thebigfatsurprise.com/